Archive for Bars

Anchorage, the Early Days

Memory: why does it store some events and discard all others?

1959 Plymouth Sport Fury photo-13. Compliments of Wikimedia Commons

1959 Plymouth Sport Fury photo-13. Compliments of Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps moments of real emotion are flagged for the archive, while routine events are purged. Those wild and wooly early days in Anchorage brought out the best and the worst in citizens; we were alternately inspired and appalled by local news and what we experienced personally. These experiences we remember.

In the summer of 1957, my family piled into our swimming-pool green 1955 Ford Fairlane 4-door, my favorite car of all time, to move from Colorado to Anchorage. My parents got the front seat, with my faithful mixed-breed dog Tippy lying at Mom’s feet. We three kids got the backseat and the never-empty box of snacks. We pulled a small trailer containing our most precious stuff, with my bicycle tied on top of the stack.

On a day of gusting sidewinds, we topped a rise near Cheyenne, Wyoming, and our trailer seemed to declare its independence, hopping from one wheel to the other and yanking the car violently left and right. I was really afraid we would tumble off the highway into the ditch. My dad hit the brakes and the trailer settled down. At the next gas station we got the advice to repack the trailer to locate the center of gravity ahead of the single axle. This adjustment prevented the pendulum effect we had experienced.

Somewhere along the narrow gravel road called the Alcan, we stopped to stretch our legs in a dense spruce forest, and Tippy headed off into the trees to explore. After a quarter-hour of us kids throwing spruce cones at each other, Dad gave the order to load back into the car, and we called Tippy.

Jean (on left) and Tippy.  © Jean McLane

Jean (on left) and Tippy. © Jean McLane

Trees stood so close together that they had no branches near the ground, and we heard our calls and whistles echoing among the bare trunks. The echoes distorted Tippy’s sense of direction, and we could faintly hear him crashing through the undergrowth far out in the woods, first in one direction, then in another. We all worried that he might never find his way back to us on the road, but we kept on calling and whistling for about 20 minutes.

At last he broke out onto the road 200 yards away and ran towards us at top speed, which was not really very fast on his short legs. Delighted with his escape from mortal danger, he whined his greetings and licked each of us again and again in celebration of our reunion and his escape from the woods. For the remainder of our trip, he was always the first to get back into the car.

Arriving in Anchorage a few days later, we were fortunate to find a small house to rent at 702 29th Avenue, a location now covered by the asphalt of Benson Blvd. Spenard Road, Northern Lights and Fireweed Lane were paved, but all the neighborhood streets were gravel. My bicycle brought from Colorado was practically useless.

Our little flat-roofed house had evidently been intended as a store, with two picture windows facing north, towards the street. The windows at the back of the house were drafty jalousies intended for the tropics, narrow strips of glass that opened like venetian blinds at the touch of a lever. The little house was warmed by an oil-burning heater in the living room, so the bedrooms were frigid. In winter, lots of water condensed on the inside of the vast front windows, forming miniature glaciers on the sills or, in slightly warmer weather, dripping into puddles on the floor.

Our house boasted a rare luxury in those days, a working telephone in the living room, without the long wait for installation. At first we felt smug about this treasure concealed in our ugly little house, but we soon learned a bit about the history of our phone number. It must have been written next to the phone at one or more bars, as our phone often rang Saturday or Sunday mornings around 1 AM. The male callers always asked to speak to a Millie or some similar name.

In a stand of birch one block east of us, a dog-sled racer kept his dogs, each chained to his own hut. Their chains were measured so that no dog could bite his neighbor. Tippy always remained a respectful distance away from the birch grove, and local gossip warned that more than one toddler had strayed in among the dogs and had been instantly devoured. In winter, moose occasionally strolled along 29th Ave. or through our backyard. We had never experienced anything like this in Colorado, and we were shocked at the rough-and-ready frontier conditions.

At that time, the post office was located on Fireweed Lane near Spenard Road, and of course the few boxes in the building were already taken. We had to wait in line in front of the window and ask for our mail, addressed to us at “General Delivery, Spenard, Alaska.” There were no ZIP codes back then.

Anchorage High School was running shifts at that time: grades 10-12 in the morning and my 9th grade in the afternoon. In my memory, the weather was always cold, and a foot of snow covered the ground. Around 11:30 I would bundle up in my parka and start my hike, west on 29th to Spenard Road, north past the pharmacy and the savings and loan, then west on Northern Lights to Minnesota. At that time, snow removal from city streets brought endless quantities of snow to the vacant land west of Minnesota. I enjoyed walking the ridge of the 3-story snow pile the city heaped up parallel to the street.

Some days I continued up Spenard Road, occasionally pausing in front of the bar opposite Sunrise Bakery to savor the fresh-bread aroma and the music and laughter from the bar. Folks were having loads of fun in there before noon, even before Mike Gordon bought the place and renamed it Chilkoot Charlie’s.

Arriving at the high school, outside the lavish front entrance near the auditorium with its glass extending to the roof of the second story, we ninth-graders enviously watched the upper classmen milling around in the warm interior. Occasionally one or two would pause to peer curiously or make faces at the peons outside in the cold. Of course, two teachers were assigned to prevent us from entering until most of the older kids had left the building. When the doors opened, we rushed in to take raucous possession of the halls and classrooms.

An older guy, possibly 18 or 19, sat in front of me in biology class in the east wing. We knew from rumors that he had vowed to “clean up” the Counts, an Anchorage car club. Who still remembers these guys, wearing their purple jackets with the white fuzzy-dice logo on the back, driving around Anchorage in their mild hot rods?

One day a ’49 Ford in black primer pulled up in the parking lot and the driver started towards the school, wearing his purple jacket. My neighbor jumped up from his seat and started for the classroom door, ignoring our teacher’s orders to sit down again. Perhaps the teacher closed the curtains, or maybe the confrontation occurred out of sight of our classroom; at any rate, I have no memory of the momentous meeting. Whatever the outcome, the crusader never returned to biology class, but we still saw the purple jackets around town for several more years.

Photo id: 264258 - Ski-equipped C47 and Bell helicopter on floats, Barrow airstrip. May 1, 1950. (Photograph by U.S. Navy.) Published in U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 301, Figure 70. 1958. - ID. Reed, J.C. 946 - rjc00946 - U.S. Geological Survey - Public domain image

Photo id: 264258 –
Ski-equipped C47 and Bell helicopter on floats, Barrow airstrip. May 1, 1950. (Photograph by U.S. Navy.) Published in U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 301, Figure 70. 1958. – ID. Reed, J.C. 946 – rjc00946 – U.S. Geological Survey – Public domain image

The following summer, my family moved to City View (where the streets were paved!), and I found employment doing odd jobs a couple of weekday afternoons and Saturdays at Polar Helicopters on Merrill Field. The company flew charters in two Bell 47G’s, the same chopper seen on MASH, equipped with large rubber pontoons for water landings and wire-mesh baskets on each side for miscellaneous gear.

For me, it was a thrill to check the oil and fill the twin fuel tanks from 5-gallon cans of aviation gas (hike the can up on a shoulder, get the nozzle into the tank opening, then use a screwdriver to punch an air hole in the bottom of the can to speed the flow). It was even exciting to clean the mud off the floor and pedals, but the best part was sitting in the pilot’s seat to polish the Plexiglas bubble. Industrious and frugal, I banked most of my pay in the savings and loan back in our old neighborhood in Spenard.

Unfortunately, my paychecks dried up when Polar Helicopters suffered a setback. One of the pilots was sneaking a Bell out on weekends to fly materials across the Inlet to a cabin he was building there. He had made good progress and was ready to shingle the roof. One Sunday, he loaded his shingles into the gear baskets, balancing the load with an equal number of bundles on each side.

After landing near the cabin, he offloaded all the bundles from the basket on the near side, leaving the remaining shingles in the other basket. Thinking of efficiency, he had the good idea of taking off in the chopper to fly the remaining shingles to the other side of the cabin. As he lifted off, the seriously unbalanced chopper rose, then tilted towards its heavy side and crashed from an altitude of just a few feet. The pilot was uninjured, and the radio was still in working condition to summon help, but the company never recovered from the loss of half of its workhorse fleet. My budding aviation career was terminated as well.

Like the conniving pilot from Polar, the manager at my savings and loan had a plan for personal advancement. He thought up a way to escape Anchorage’s winter weather by taking most of the savings and loan’s deposits to Mexico. I eventually received my share of the remaining assets, about a dime on the dollar, and immediately spent it to keep it safe from embezzlers!

Another car memory, this one from Thanksgiving 1959. My buddy Terry’s father had just bought a new Plymouth Sport Fury, a 2-door hardtop muscle car. Terry invited me to double-date in this wonderful car to a dance to be held at the O-Club on Elmendorf. I was delighted and accepted immediately, and I invited a wonderful Elmendorf girl to be my date. We had a good time at the dance, and afterwards we drove my date to her home on Elmendorf. Returning to Anchorage meant travelling a narrow road between the bases, and railroad tracks intersected the road at an angle about halfway across an open meadow, protruding above the road surface about a half-inch.

Accidents often occur due to an unforeseen combination of circumstances. On that night, roads were icy and military dump trucks with the big front-mounted angled blades were still clearing roads and runways. The key to the following events was the fact that the truck driver had lifted his blade only a fraction of an inch above the road surface. Terry was driving slowly, due to the icy conditions, and we arrived at the tracks at the same moment as the truck. His blade caught on one of the tracks and the truck was shunted into our lane, with the leading corner of the blade hitting the center of the Sport Fury’s front end. I remember seeing the truck’s lights veering unexpectedly directly into our lane.

I was sitting in the front passenger seat, Terry’s date between us, and the Sport Fury had no seat belts. My head hit the windshield, causing a small break and gashing my scalp. The truck operator immediately radioed the MP’s, and I got a ride to the 5040th Hospital for stitches. The worst part of the accident was that the beautiful Sport Fury was totaled.

The Shaky Hold Up, Part 2

Gold Framed Mirror, © Danny Griffin

Gold Framed Mirror, © Danny Griffin

BOOM! The house shook like a bomb hit it, and then the place rolled like the deck of a ship. I waited a little bit as my jeans were being twisted, with me in them, on the old brown couch. I yelled, “I’m getting out of here!” and ran toward the front door. Dad and Mom dashed from the kitchen, grabbed me and held me fast beneath the doorframe beside my brother Jack.

The gold framed mirror on the wall next to us began to sway, and Jack reached out to steady it. By this time the mirror was the ONLY thing left on the wall.

“Don’t hold on to that earthly stuff,” Mom scolded.

“Hold on, nothing!” Jack returned. “I’m trying to keep it from killing us!”

It was funny to watch our 60-inch player piano roll around the room like one of my toy cars. It would simultaneously smash a chair in slow motion while the black doors to the music mechanism opened and closed. I wondered if it was going out of tune. Duplicating its warbled tunes in music class would have been impossible.

The birch tree outside the front window banged the ground like a rug beater. If I had been near that tree, it would have pancaked me. It narrowly missed our 1956 purple Dodge parked in the driveway. (Dad must have gotten it cheap because of its color. It had push-button drive, and he was proud of it.) That heavy car jumped up and down like me on my pogo stick. It bounced partway down the driveway and nearly into the newly paved street.

I began to wonder if it was the end of the world. Then I got the idea that perhaps this would never quit, so I figured It might be good to learn how to walk around the house while dodging all the cups, books, furniture, and pianos flying about. When I begin my move, every available hand caught me, abruptly ending that adventure.

Felton and Laverne Griffin and children: Patsy with daughter, Karen; Danny, small boy on left, Jere, Jack and Cecelia. The photo was taken at 1144 F Street in Anchorage approx. 1956. © Danny Griffin

Felton and Laverne Griffin and children: Patsy with daughter, Karen; Danny, small boy on left, Jere, Jack
and Cecelia. The photo was taken at 1144 F Street in Anchorage approx. 1956. © Danny Griffin

I remembered the whole church had prayed that the bars and bawdy houses on 4th Avenue would somehow be brought down. Was this an answer to our prayer, or just happenstance? My little mind started cranking out all kinds of thoughts. I couldn’t figure out why God shook things up like this on a Good Friday. I mean, it was GOOD FRIDAY! I supposed that was what had happened when Jesus died, so maybe God was showing us what it was like on the day Jesus died. Perhaps it was just the bad people in Anchorage He needed to straighten out. It seemed gratefulness was the best route. I thought God might send another earthquake if we all got too angry at Him. I didn’t want another trembler.

It all became too complicated for me, so I concluded that I was happy that there was no school and I could go sledding for a few days. One of the biggest problems was my favorite TV show. How would I ever know what had happened during that episode of “Fireball XL-5” if there was no electricity. In those days, there were no re-runs. As a matter of fact, I never did find out how that episode ended.

When the “Big One” was over, we thought we would look around the house first. Not one book, plate, or anything else was left on the shelf or in the cupboards. Every photo on the wall, every electrical fixture, and everything that wasn’t nailed down had crashed to the floor. Ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, paper, plates, spoons, books, and vegetables were all mixed together on the floor. It looked like blobs of partially stirred meatloaf. Most of the dishes were in little pieces mixed with the gooey mess. A fork or arbitrary utensil stuck up here and there, decorating the room with a silver flash of light. My mom’s favorite china actually survived. Only one plate was damaged.

Danny still has quite a few of the dishes that survived. © Danny Griffin

Danny still has quite a few of the dishes that survived. © Danny Griffin

We kept plenty of camping supplies around since we loved to camp. Fortunately, all of our plastic plates and cups were intact. We had something to eat on and a little grill as well as a Coleman stove with plenty of white gas.

The 60-inch black player piano was cockeyed in the middle of the room. All that moving around had rolled up our rug under it. I hated moving that old beat up piano. The wheels were broken and it was a devil to get across the room. How it had floated around with a broken wheel was beyond my childish imagination. With a heap of lifting and shoving, together, we got it back in place. The bubble glass chandelier was still swinging back and forth on one of its three chains. Besides the mirror, it was the only other thing left on the walls or ceiling.

When we opened the door to our upstairs, a flood of books fell into the downstairs hallway. We kept most of our copious amount of books in a huge shelf on the staircase and now a mountain of Mark Twain, Shakespeare, World Book Encyclopedias, and other books lay heaped at our feet.

What would we find next?

To be continued. . .

The Agosti Family in Anchorage

Agosti girls, Turnagain Elementary, 1963. © Tam Agosti-Gisler

Agosti girls, Turnagain Elementary, 1963. © Tam Agosti-Gisler

Lino Agosti was sent to Anchorage from Minneapolis to manage the Northwest Airlines flight kitchens in spring of 1959, just a few months after Alaska had achieved statehood. Northwest ran a big operation because they provided meals for all of the airlines.  This ended a long migration for Lino that began with his birth on January 6, 1920 in the small village of Aquafredda in northern Italy.  His parents immigrated to the US when he was 21 months old via Ellis Island and headed to the coal mines of Ohio before settling in Pittsburgh. His father passed away when he was 5 and his industrious single mother raised Lino and his younger sister during the Depression years.  Lino’s military service sent him around the Pacific and stationed him for two years in post-war Japan. His degree studies took him to Chicago and Denver, the latter being where he met Dona Agosti.  After marriage, they returned to her home state of Minnesota to begin their family.  Dona begrudgingly brought their three daughters, Jan (age 4), Ann (age 3) and Tam (age 21 months) to join Lino in the ‘remote outpost’ called Anchorage on August 15, 1959, properly preparing by dressing the girls in winter coats and boots. Lino and his Northwest staff grinned as his young family exited the plane and crossed the tarmac on that warm, beautiful summer day. Their outer garments were quickly shed along with the false stereotypes about the climate in August.

It only took one year of residence in Anchorage at their 1104 11th Avenue home on the corner of 11th and L Street, one block south of the Park Strip, before Dona declared that she would live nowhere else on earth. The stunning beauty of the Chugach Range influenced this statement by a woman who had been raised in the flat farmlands of Donnelly, Minnesota, but her change of heart was more a result of the embracing, welcoming attitudes of so many Anchoragites towards the young family. She marveled over the way people of all backgrounds and social classes interacted in this young city, a quite different scenario than her experiences living and working in Los Angeles, post-war Berlin and Manhattan.  Dona did lament the lack of her favorite Minneapolis department stores, but was rescued by “care packages” sent by her mother.  At that time in Anchorage, Northern Commercial or NC was the only department store in town. Caribou’s came along in 1961 and J.C. Penney opened in 1963.

Along with their increasing number of friends, so grew the family.  Four boys arrived in their first five years in Anchorage, Jon (1960), Tim (1961), Tom (1963) and Dave (1964), all delivered by close family friend, the late Dr. James O’Malley.  The older two were born in the old Providence Hospital on the northwest corner of 9th and L where the present-day Hawthorne Suites and Benihana’s were built.  The gender change was attributed to the pure Alaskan drinking water!

Agosti boys at Turnagain Elementary, 1969. © Tam Agosti-Gisler

Agosti boys at Turnagain Elementary, 1969. © Tam Agosti-Gisler

The girls all attended kindergarten with “teacher extraordinaire” Florence Pointer in the basement of All Saints Episcopal Church on the corner of 8th and F Streets, in the shadow of the present day Dena’ina Convention Center. The girls all have fond memories of walking to the park strip to play on the old train engine in the warmer months or skate on the ice rink in the winter.

The family moved to a wooded, dirt street named Turnagain Boulevard East in the Turnagain-by-the-Sea neighborhood in 1961.  This home and street were later dubbed 2324 Loussac Drive and the road was widened and paved.   The Agostis experienced the 1964 earthquake here, a 9.2 shaker that cracked the foundation when the clay ground layers turned Jell-O-like during the four and a half minutes of shaking.

Money was tight in the 60’s, but not adventures.  Dona and Lino took all the kids and the family dog camping around Alaska – first using an old Army tent with rumored bullet holes, and then a station wagon with a pull behind trailer.  Memorable trips were made to Circle Hot Springs as well as “A-67” in Fairbanks, the centennial celebration of the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.  This was just weeks before horrible floods inundated that town and Dona helped organize temporary shelter in Anchorage for Fairbanksans.

Hope, Cooper Landing and Russian River, the Homer Spit and Jackolof Bay all figure in wonderful childhood memories of camping, hiking, fishing and dropping shrimp and crab pots.

Adventures were had in town too.  Parks in the neighborhood that carry fond memories for the family include Lynn Ary Park and Earthquake Park. The former was where the Agosti boys’ Little League games were played and the later was where guests were taken to show them the upheavals in the earth caused by the 1964 earthquake, particularly after the Turnagain Bluff area, formed by the collapsing homes and ground, was leveled flat.  There was no coastal trail in 60s and 70s, but many a discovery was made at the Bluff. While digging in the sand, trinkets, crockery and even toilet bowls were found!   In the winter, the Bluff was the site for pulling screaming and laughing kids on saucer sleds behind snow machines. Point Woronzof, though not a developed park in those days, was a site for watching planes take off and land.

Neighborhood children met in front of the house or on the street in the evenings after dinner for games like Kick the Can, Werewolf, and Mother May I.  They sledded down “Suicide Hill” into the hopefully frozen Fish Creek, which was referred to as “The Sewer,” or dangled from Tarzan ropes over their hill.

The Agosti kids rode bikes down Northern Lights to Lake Otis, where the road turned to dirt, and continued to Goose Lake to swim on warm days.  Even though Lake Spenard was closer to their Loussac home, bathers had to contend with the floatplane traffic and oil on both Lake Spenard and Lake Hood, even with a roped-off area.  On some occasions, trips to Jewel Lake were also taken. There is no recollection of “swimmer’s itch” with which modern day swimmers in those lakes contend.

Russian Jack Springs Park was the site where all the Agosti children went sledding and learned to downhill ski on the bunny slope with rope tow.  The family has hilarious Super-8 films of their attempts to navigate the hill.  In addition to skiing at Russian Jack Park and Arctic Valley, the once-a-year family excursion to Alyeska Resort was a highlight.

Less favorable memories include descending Romig Hill after a heavy rain and while attempting to ascend the hill north towards L Street, just before 15th Avenue, getting the car stuck in mud.  Later Minnesota Bypass was built and the road diverted to the east of that hill to intersect with I Street. Bootleggers Cove swamp was dammed and turned into Westchester Lagoon, an obviously more eye-appealing feature, and one that today is surrounded by biking, hiking and skiing trails and a park. In later years, the Agosti grandchildren enjoyed learning to skate on the lagoon’s frozen surface in the winter months.

Other fond memories include visits to the original Loussac Library, located on F Street behind the log cabin on 4th Avenue where the Visitor’s Center, the alley and the Egan Convention Center are now located.   A treat was going to the movies, usually at the Denali Theater in Spenard (where Bear Tooth currently operates), but occasionally to the Fourth Avenue Theater with its marvelous Alaskan scene reliefs and Big Dipper-lit ceiling. Additionally, there was the Fireweed Theater, which featured a drive-in theater, a concept that was rather ridiculous in Alaska since it never got dark in the warm summer months and required constant scraping of the front window and running vehicle for heat in the winter.  For the same reasons, the 360-degree drive-in screens that were later built on the site where the current Huffman shopping mall is today didn’t stay in business for long.

In the winter, the family always attended the Fur Rendezvous in February.  The parents’ favorite event was sitting on Fourth Avenue in the bleachers watching the dog sled races. The children’s favorite memories were of the parade, the blanket toss, carnival rides, mineral shows and cotton candy.

The Agosti children often took their 10 cents allowance and rode their bikes or walked to a small store named Andy’s located on the south side of Northern Lights, just west of the present-day railroad bridge which crossed the actual road at that time.  Later, that store would close and a modern Bi-Lo store opened across the street.  There are no traces of those establishments today, but the family notes with amusement that the nearby and popular Rustic Goat restaurant sits on the site of a gas station. In the hours after the ’64 earthquake, when a tsunami was feared in Anchorage, all residents were told to evacuate. The Agostis got stuck in the traffic jam on Northern Lights caused by everyone heading for the mountains.  The family spent the night in their car behind that gas station!

Favorite stores in heart of Spenard included Piggly Wiggly’s and Ben Franklin on Spenard Road (where present-day Play It Again Sports and Plato’s Closet are located).  In the Northern Lights Mall, one found Pay-N-Save and Carl’s Jewelry (where Title Wave Books is located), and Montgomery Wards (formerly called Caribou’s; REI is located there today) Walter Hickel, whose construction company built Caribou’s with Alaska’s first escalator, explained how the store fell on the borderline of the city and Spenard. He quipped that at the bottom of the escalator you were in Anchorage and at the top, you were in Spenard!  In the same mall, Safeway operated in the spot where present-day Alaska Club West, is found and competed with the local grocery chain across the street named Carrs Grocery that today is Carrs-Safeway. It was next to Pay-n-Pak (now Satellite Auto Glass). Shakey’s Pizza, the first franchise pizza parlor in the U.S., occupied the east side of that building and many celebrated sporting and other competition wins there. Flap Jack Jim’s Pancake House, situated next to the Denali Theatre, was a mainstay for many years.

First National Bank, built in the parking lot bordering Northern Lights Boulevard between Spenard Road and Minnesota Blvd., still operates today, but the National Bank of Alaska branch at the corner of Northern Lights and Spenard with whom the Agosti family has had an account since 1962, was sold to Northrim Bank.  Two sports recreation businesses, Barney’s Sports Chalet at 906 Northern Lights and Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking at 2633 Spenard, still operate in the same locations today.  A smaller version of Chilkoot Charlie’s or “Koots” has been in business in the same location on Spenard Road since January 1, 1970; prior to that it was the Alibi Club.  Farther east on Northern Lights, many remember when the Sears Mall opened in 1966 (simply called “The Mall” in those days because it was the first in Alaska); it was a swamp before they filled it in to build the mall.

Dona and Lino were immersed in their Catholic faith and were part of the Third Order of St. Francis group that started a food pantry called St. Francis House in a building donated by Dr. O’Malley in the alley behind Holy Family Cathedral. Their social service work expanded and was dubbed Catholic Charities, which eventually became Catholic Social Services.  Dona was also co-founder of the ecumenical F.I.S.H. food pantry with Tay Thomas with whom she volunteered for 18 years. She also served as an election board member for twenty-three years for national, state, borough and municipal elections, was a member of the Anchorage Republican Women’s Club, worked on senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns, and was a Republican State Convention delegate. She was a state delegate for the National Organization for Women. Dona sang in the Our Lady of Guadalupe choir, donated her interior decorating skills to the Archbishop and parish priests, and was a religious education teacher. Recognizing Dona’s superb organizational and people skills, she was asked to be the Program Production Chair for the 1981 visit of Pope John Paul II to Anchorage.

Lino left Northwest Airlines and managed The Harbor House, a seafood restaurant where Platinum Jaxx was most recently located, and then went to work for Tapscott, Inc. located on Fireweed Lane. He soon started his own business as a food service consultant and owner of Refrigeration and Food Equipment, a 50-year business run today by three of his sons. Lino was a member of the Food Service Consultants Society International and the Chaîne des Rotisseurs, two groups directed towards enhancing professionalism in the commercial food service industry. He loved good food and wine as well as his linen napkins.

After his family, Lino’s greatest joy was fishing.  He was an avid angler and taught many of his children, grandchildren, countless friends and visitors his innate skills earning the moniker “The Machine.”  He began fishing at Russian River in the early 60’s, long before its campground was open. Thousands of salmon were brought home during his lifetime, not only from the Russian or Kenai Rivers, but Ship Creek and Bird Creek also.  Lino also supported the Anchorage Civic Opera and the Alaska Repertory Theatre. He served as a lector, a member of the Men’s Club and the building committee at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. He and his wife conducted pre-wedding counseling for the Archdiocese for ten years.  He also volunteered with his sons’ Little League teams and Boy Scout Troop 615.

Dona helped her husband build their company, and also served as its president. When not parenting, volunteering or working, Dona loved the Alaskan outdoors. She was an avid backpacker and enjoyed cross-country skiing.  She served as hiking chair for the Mountaineering Club of Alaska for ten years, wrote for and produced its publication called the Scree, and led extended wilderness hikes throughout Alaska. Dona covered over 2,600 miles and authored The High Country Backpacker, a book designed to help new hikers prepare and avoid injury. Wilma: an Alaska Tale of One Teacher, Two Teenagers and Three Wolverines, is another young adult fiction book authored by Dona.  She loved spending time at the remote log cabin the family built outside of Talkeetna on State of Alaska open-to-entry land. Reminiscent of her childhood cabin in northern Minnesota, Agosti Lake became her private piece of wilderness and provided many bear stories and other tall tales.

She inherited her mother’s green thumb and kept lovely flower gardens at their Turnagain home. Her award winning arrangements were often enjoyed in the Anchorage Flower Show.  Dona passed away on March 9, 2010 followed by Lino on November 10, 2013.  They were married for over 55 years.

Agosti Family, Christmas 1970. © Tam Agosti-Gisler

Agosti Family, Christmas 1970. © Tam Agosti-Gisler

For 20 years, Turnagain Elementary, Romig Junior High and West High School staffs welcomed the many Agosti children in their halls. Several Agosti children also did short stints at Inlet View Elementary, Hubbard Memorial (Catholic) Elementary and Catholic Junior High (located where present day North Star Elementary School operates).  Science fair projects of high caliber were required of the children.  The girls participated in musical play performances through T.O.S.S. (Treasures of Sight and Song), Bluebirds and Campfire Girls as well as pageants such as Junior Miss and Miss Teenage Anchorage. The boys were spelling bee winners, wrestling champs, and Little League players. All the children learned to play an instrument in the Romig band and several played in the West High Marching Band. After the last of her children passed through Romig Jr. High, Dona was recognized for her parental commitment to her kids’ education by the staff.   Dona was named Alaska Mother of the Year in 1984 and became active with the Alaskan American Mothers Association.

Education was valued highly in the Agosti Family, so it’s no accident that all seven children graduated from West High and then earned university degrees.

Tam, Jon and Dave returned to live in Anchorage with their families. Tim works in Anchorage and goes home to see his family in Kenai each weekend. Ann lives in Homer; Jan and Tom and their families live in Seattle.

Ocean View

Oceanview Home, 1980's. © Beth Brandt-Erichsen

Oceanview Home, 1980’s. © Beth Brandt-Erichsen

Last September I returned home, to Anchorage, for the sad occasion of my sister’s funeral. Over the week, as my family gathered we toured our remembered favorites. Lunch at the Roadrunner and ordered an Alaska Banquet of course – my grown up self resisting the urge for a butterscotch milkshake and onion rings. Communal meals with family and friends we had not sat with in 20 years.

We hiked the fall trails around Service, the scent of high-bush cranberry making my soul home sick for care-free childhood days. We hiked the new, paved and groomed trail along Campbell Creek, smiling and nodding to strangers, so many strangers. Anchorage had grown bigger, and grown up. When we all scattered from Anchorage, myself to Ketchikan, my brothers to Nikiski and Tacoma, there were no Microbreweries, chain restaurants or stores such as Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch or Best Buy. Yep, Anchorage was hard to recognize, but little glimmers of familiarity remained – Club Paris, Bells Nursery, the Quick Stop (or whatever it is called now) at the corner of Klatt and Old Seward, where we would walk in the summer for a soda and few games of Pac-Man or Space Invaders. The building that once housed Family Video, where we would rent videos. The concept. Renting videos, in beta-max even. Imagine that!!

My brother and I decided to drive by our old family home in Ocean View; the house we grew up in. My parents bought that house in the late sixties, back then it was the last house on the street, edging on the forest. Lucky for us, we lived in those woods. Now it is a maze of suburban streets and homes. We parked the car on Admiralty Street and wandered around the block. There was Tom’s house, unrecognizable. Eric’s house, and Patty’s house comfortingly familiar. Back around the block we stood looking at our childhood home. Even though it was painted a God-awful color, (my sister had sent me pictures, it was not a complete shock) it still looked the same. The shutters were still in the window. Memories of my dad building them. Memories of closing them against those white cold winter days, a fire in the fireplace, curled up with a good book, me reading, always reading.

Camping with my siblings, most likely Quartz Creek, a favorite campground. 1966/67 © Beth Brandt-Erichsen

Camping with my siblings, most likely Quartz Creek, a favorite campground. 1966/67 © Beth Brandt-Erichsen

The fern my mother had carefully carried back from our Indian River cabin stood tall and lush against the house creating memories of her working in the yard, tulips and rhubarb, strawberries and my very own radish patch. My mother, fiercely battling neighbors to keep every tree possible. My dad, so proud of his green, green lawn, which meant summer chores for us. Mowing, raking trimming the edges, but it was worth it, because, with a small tug at my heart, I could still see my sister and I with towels, “sun bathing” Alaska style on that lawn. Lemon juice in our hair and baby oil for tanning lotion, a tinny radio playing Casey Cassum in the background.

Those summers growing up in Ocean View, in the Land of the Midnight-Sun, meant hours of “kick the can” and hide and seek, late, late, late into the evening, until, one by one our parents called us in. A pack of kids, exploring “over the bluff” riding our bikes to Potter’s Marsh to see how close we could get to the swarms of Canada geese goslings.   Walking the railroad tracks just to walk them, to see how far we could go. The sound of that train at the crossing. John’s Park. There are houses there now, but back then, we would roll up our pants and ride our bikes along the rough logging roads for miles. Stopping in the meadow to lay down, hidden in the grass, tall around us, the only sounds were the wind and bugs and birds. Plagued, always plagued by swarms of mosquitoes.

Skiing at Arctic Valley - leather boots and bindings, bamboo poles and by my squint, pre-googles. Maybe 1968. © Beth Brandt-Erichsen

Skiing at Arctic Valley – leather boots and bindings, bamboo poles and by my squint, pre-googles. Maybe 1968. © Beth Brandt-Erichsen

Winters were magical also. Snow forts, snow tunnels, snow castles. Whole snow cities. Patty and I stamping words in the snow. The names of the boys we liked and “I love the Beatles.” The same kids you played Kick-the-can with in the summer, you had vicious snowball wars with in the winter. Boys against girls of course. Our own version of Lawn Darts with ski poles, me with a “pirates patch” over one eye for six weeks. Standing under streetlights with your face tilted up, watching fat lazy snowflakes drift down. Mesmerizing, calming, almost therapeutic. Running around in crazy circles to see how many you could catch with your tongue.

Winter Saturdays meant skiing! Long before Hilltop was around, we skied at Arctic Valley and Alyeska, back when a lift ticket cost less than $20.00.   Rounding up ski gear. Stiff leather gloves, layers and layers of clothes, ski boots, poles, and of course, someone always forgot something. Girdwood. So many memories.

Those woods that were so friendly in the summer were dark and mysterious in the winter, branches heavy with snow. Those super-cold winter days, the trees blanketed in hoar-frost, ice crystals shimmering in the air and the sky. That sky, that pale winter blue sky hazy with cold.

But here we were now standing in the street, flooded with memories. It was autumn, 2015 and we were sad.   Ray and I stood, smiled weakly and took a picture in front of the house, got in our rental car and went to the airport to pick up our father.

Chilkoot Charlie in Girdwood

© Americanspirit | Dreamstime.com - A sign that reads �Welcome to Girdwood

© Americanspirit | Dreamstime.com – A sign that reads �Welcome to Girdwood

The locals called it Chuck’s. It was the first transplant. Plenty of people preferred it to the operation in town. It featured the same basic décor—spruce slabs, fish nets on the ceiling, copies of Betty Park paintings of Chilkoot Charlie and Six-Toed Mordecai, keg seats and peanut shells, but it was more spacious than the original at the time and it was sort of out in the woods. The bar, dance floor, entertainment and games were all in one big room. It was a fun place, as was Girdwood, aka Girdweed.

I purchased the business from Doug Lewsader. He and his wife, Thea, had operated the place for a few years as the Crow Mountain Creek Lodge. Lewsader, also known as, “Lewsader the Crusader” because of his religious rantings, was an unscrupulous character who took me aside and let me in on the secret of how he made a substantial profit from the sale of his draft beer. He bought frozen kegs from Odom Corporation at a heavy discount and melded them half-and-half with healthy kegs.

Before moving to Girdwood Lewsader was the personal pilot of Billie Sol Estes and as such probably knew way too much about the fertilizer quota scandals and a string of a half dozen or more murders and cover-ups, all in some way linked to Lyndon Johnson, Estes and slew of Johnson cronies. Papers reported that the normally talkative Lewsader, after the mysterious plane crash that killed Coleman Wade, the builder of most of Estes’ grain storage facilities, showed up in court represented by the very expensive lawyer, John Cofer, a long-time associate of LBJ, and with nothing more to say. Word was that Doug was told to “get lost,” or have his name added to that long list of unfortunates. So, he kept his head down in Girdwood and flew helicopters for the oil companies for a while.

  1. Evetts Haley, in A Texan Looks at Lyndon, A Study in Illegitimate Power, Evetts reports:

As the civil litigation precipitated by the collapse spread, the testimony of scores of men was searchingly sought, among these that of Douglas Lewsader, Billie Sol’s loquacious pilot, who at first could not even afford a jack-leg lawyer. But when the testimony of Lewsader—the pilot who had flown so many political notables for Estes—came to be taken his counsel was one of the most able and expensive in Texas—John D. Cofer.

In each case the public wonders: Who paid Cofer? The bankrupt Billie Sol? Then how? If not, who? And why?

Before Cofer took over and tied a knot in Lewsaders tongue, that knowledgeable gentleman had spilled a lot of loose and indiscriminate information. He told of a ‘command call’ he had one night to come to Estes’ home. When he got there a big, burly man with Billie introduced himself as an agent for the Teamster’s union, Hoffa’s outfit that was having its trouble with Bobby Kennedy, who had lost no love on Lyndon, but who still in his capacity as Attorney General, the arbiter of federal justice and boss of the FBI—might lower the boom on Billie Sol. All of which was in the realm of political reason.

In view of the well-known fact that gangsters think and operate in terms of blackmail and payoffs, his suggestion was logical and from the point of view of all involved, if not prudent, at least reasonable. One thing about gangsters, they come to the point. His proposal was that ‘for a million dollars we will deliver the dope on Lyndon Johnson.’ It was a waste of words to elaborate upon its possible use among men of parts and imagination. Bargained into the hands of Bobby, it might slow the sometimes rusty wheels of justice from grinding down on Billie Sol. In the hands of Estes it might mean that Lyndon would have to go all the way to keep Billie out of trouble. At least these were the sordid implications.

His proposition made, the gentleman rose to his feet, flipped out his card with the address of a Chicago Club and, suggesting they check his credentials, said: ‘Here’s my card and here’s the Club. I’ll be back in two weeks to get your answer. Whoever lets this news get out will be dead!’

According to Lewsader, on April 21, 1963, two weeks later to a day, he was back for an answer. Estes had checked the Club and confirmed his identity. Aside from the other imponderables in such dealings, however, was the uncertain question of whom he really might represent. Puzzled investigators have wondered if it might have been Lyndon, or even the Kennedys, applying the ancient materialistic test as to whether Billie Sol himself was amenable to blackmail and hence politically exceedingly dangerous.

Billy Sol, the paragon of Pecos virtue who ‘never took a drink, smoked, or cursed,’ turned the proffered professional services down. After all there is a limit to which decent men can go.

 

Lewsader got about as far from south Texas as he could without leaving the United States and it certainly appears he had good reason.

The manager I put in charge of Girdwood Chilkoot Charlie’s was Dale Vaughn, who had been the manager of my Anchorage operation. He and his wife, Darlene, lived upstairs over the bar for a while, like Doug and Thea. It was dark, cramped and lacked privacy. Darlene was so unhappy with the arrangement I bought a double-wide trailer and set it up next to the club, for which I was never thanked and which failed to make her any happier as far as I could tell.

Dale wasn’t the sort of guy that would normally have taken up skiing. I had to insist on it. We were operating adjacent to a ski resort, after all, and competing with the hotel for skiing customers. He took it up and actually enjoyed it. It might have been the only time in Dale’s life that he didn’t wear white socks with his black horn-rimmed glasses. It was well understood by those in the know that you could always win a bet with someone willing to bet Dale was wearing other than white socks, no matter what else he was wearing.

We used to joke that Dale was an asshole, but he was a perfect asshole. He and I used to get into huge arguments like I’ve never gotten into with anyone else in my life. It’s still a mystery to me why I allowed myself to get drawn into so many shouting matches with him. When he was running Chilkoot’s in Spenard and I was running Gordo’s, which I’d converted to a gay clientele, we would get into shouting matches at the bar, then move upstairs so as not to be too disruptive, only to return to the bar to find we’d scared off all the customers.

Girdwood presented some of the usual problems for the times. There were some locals who had themselves convinced that they were going to run the club, not me or Dale. After receiving a call for help one night from Dale, I drove down the highway with a few heavily armed friends and came to the very brink of a shootout with these loons. Fortunately they backed down. In the 70s, just because you had your name on a license didn’t mean you were going to be readily accepted as the boss by your patrons. “What do you mean you’re not going to accept tabs anymore?” “Bullshit!” “You can’t raise the price of draft beer.” You sometimes had to establish your bona fides by use of force. Chris VonImhof, a class act, was managing Alyeska Resort and Bob Persons was just beginning to build his clientele at the Double Musky into the colossal success it is today. But running night clubs is a lot different than running restaurants or ski resorts. They weren’t faced with the same difficulties with locals as I did.

I never did manage to make any money operating a night club and paying for live bands and management in a small, seasonal community with generally only weekend nights to prosper. To make matters worse, Dale, who liked to shout, “You never pounded a single nail!” at the top of his lungs, without ever acknowledging that he had never invested a single cent for his significant share of the corporation, started hanging out all the time with Eddie at Eddie’s Hayloft instead of looking after our business. After returning from a mid-life crisis runaway to Belize and dumping the Fairbanks operation I was able to sell the business to someone who wanted to move the license to downtown Anchorage, which was then becoming an attractive location for new businesses. Dale went to work for Eddie, where he had been spending all his time anyway.

ID 9722152 © Lora Parks | Dreamstime.com Historic buildings in Alaska at the Crow Creek Mine, Girdwood

ID 9722152 © Lora Parks | Dreamstime.com
Historic buildings in Alaska at the Crow Creek Mine, Girdwood

During the time I owned Girdwood Chilkoot’s I owned, with a couple of friends, a chalet on Brighton Drive, just down the hill from the Day Lodge parking lot. We had a clear view of the mountain out our window, so when we got up in the mornings we could see what the weather was like. When there was snow on the ground we could ski from the lodge right to our front door. I spent a lot of time in Girdwood with my kids, my nephew Curt and my second wife, Tiffany, skiing and just relaxing. Driving forty miles out of town was like leaving the state since there were no cell phones at the time. When I decided to sell the bar operation in the early 80s, I told my daughter, Michele, who was still in high school, about it and she started crying. I asked, “Why are you crying?” It was because she thought I was going to sell the chalet, where we had spent so much quality time together. She was immediately okay once I explained I was talking about the bar.

I hired a manager named Pat Osborne, the son of an old pal of mine named Stan Osborne from when I sold life insurance at New York Life. Pat had recently graduated from UAF and had a good appreciation for music. He and I arranged a going away party for Dale and I showed up with a white suit case so we could all write rude going away comments on it for fun.

Dale, drunk and sitting next to me, also drunk, began berating me with his “You never pounded a single nail!” bullshit. Eventually, I told him to shut up or step outside with me. He didn’t, so we did. It was no match and if several people hadn’t pulled me off of him, my years of pent-up rage might have been his quietus. Later, on duck hunting trips across Cook Inlet with our cronies, Dale would grouse about it saying, “He put the boots to me!” He was right. I did. And I’d do it again.

Ruben Gaines

Ruben Gaines, 1994. Compliments of Mike Gordon

Ruben Gaines, 1994. Compliments of Mike Gordon

Weary of selling life insurance, I was looking for a change. I’ve never been very good at dealing with rejection and if I got a rude reaction to my first cold call of the day I was frequently done. A lot of people had suggested to me that I should be in radio or television, mostly because of my voice, a baritone I’ve been accused of affecting, though it’s the same voice of my father and my son.

In 1969, radio broadcasters had to take a simple FCC test for a license before they were employable, so I went to the old federal building on Fourth Avenue and got licensed. As I recall, it had mostly to do with not swearing on the air. Next, I applied for a job as a disc jockey with local radio station KHAR. Station manager Ken Flynn ushered me into a little booth to read an ad for Volkswagen.

When I was finished, he said, “I hate it when some kid walks in straight off the street and sounds better than I do!” Then he hired me.

In addition to selling life insurance for New York Life and managing some apartments on a block of property downtown that I owned with a friend of mine, I was trying to put another bar deal together, crawling under the buildings of prospective purchases through the reeking fumes of space heaters placed to prevent the plumbing from freezing. But now I also went in the mornings to KHAR each day to learn how to work “the board,” a big commercial radio station soundboard. My instructor was Ruben Gaines. This chance meeting was one of the most important in either of our lives, though neither of us could have possibly guessed it at the time.

Ruben was the consummate raconteur, a truly gifted and professional writer and entertainer in every sense of the word. I marveled at his abilities. He had a program called Conversations Unlimited, in which he entertained Alaskans every weekday during prime drive-home time with his storytelling, wit and social commentary, mixed with easy-listening music. His theme song, I nostalgically recall, was Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” Ruben had different established characters in his stories, including Doc, Mrs. Malone, Six-toed Mordecai and, of course, Chilkoot Charlie, a character Ruben concocted during a long, 206-inch, rainy winter in Ketchikan in the late 1940s. Ruben would bring these characters to life for his audience, virtually becoming each one. The character I remember most vividly watching him affect was Doc, the crusty sourdough, for whom Ruben would greatly protrude his lower lip to produce the appropriate vocal personality.

Ruben was born in Portland, Oregon in 1912. He had a successful career in Hollywood during World War II and knew a lot of the Hollywood celebrities of the day. He worked for five years at Hollywood Mutual Studios of KJS, Los Angeles, writing most of the network’s continuity for their musical productions. He also wrote much of the drama for shows like “California Melodies,” the music version of “Music Depreciation,” and “This is the Hour.” Ruben wrote and directed musical productions with Frank DeVol, Buddy Cole and Henry Zimmerman—all enormously talented and successful men.

He told me he and a couple of pals, drunk and blindfolded, threw a dart at a wall map and it landed on Alaska, which I suppose is as good of an explanation for moving to the territory as any.

Before settling in Anchorage, Ruben also worked a spell in Fairbanks, where he and another talented radio guy, sportscaster Ed Stevens, would brilliantly broadcast “live” Major League Baseball games. Of course, there were no satellites back then, so Alaskans had to wait several days for tape recordings to arrive by air, and calling the States was expensive, if not impossible for most people. Ruben and Ed would receive the play-by-play information about a game from a buddy in the Lower Forty-Eight by telephone, on the station’s dime, and would then “broadcast” the game as if it were live, including the excitement one would expect from the announcer, the sound effects of the ball being smacked, the roaring crowd and all. People in the Bush never knew the difference between Ruben and Ed’s broadcasts and the real thing.

Not long after my introduction to Ruben and “the board,” oil was discovered on the North Slope and a state auction raised $900 million from the sale of leases at Prudhoe Bay. It was a colossal amount of money in 1969, though today the state’s annual budget is well over ten times that amount. Given the changing circumstances, I figured I would visit Skip Fuller again to see if the Alibi Club in Spenard was still for sale. It was, but the price had gone up. The price of everything had gone up.

Not wanting to miss the potential bonanza of owning a bar during a boom period, lawyer friend Bill Jacobs and I bit the bullet, borrowed the pre-arranged $20,000 from his mother for a down payment and closed the deal. Now I had to decide on a name and specific Alaskan theme for the place. I kept a pad by my bed and woke up throughout the night to write down ideas. One had to do with a much-maligned local variety of salmon—the pink, or humpy. I had schools of ideas about Mr. and Mrs. Humpy, waking up in the middle of the night to write them down on a pad next to my bed. You don’t have to ponder overly long to realize the possibilities. Sooner or later someone was going to employ the name, and many years later did. The other idea was Chilkoot Charlie’s, after Ruben’s titan, fictional, sourdough reprobate, arguably the best known literary character in the state at the time. I was torn.

I had a schoolteacher for a tenant in one of our rentals downtown that had been a customer at the Bird House Bar and was one of my New York Life policyholders. When I went around monthly collecting rents he and his wife would sometimes invite me in for dinner.

One night over dinner I presented my dilemma and Mel didn’t hesitate, saying, “What, are you crazy? You’ve got to call it Chilkoot Charlie’s!”

"Chilkoot Charlie and .... " by Ruben Gaines, illustrated by Betty Park. © Ruben Gaines; photo by Jana Ariane Nelson

“Chilkoot Charlie and …. ” by Ruben Gaines, illustrated by Betty Park. © Ruben Gaines; photo by Jana Ariane Nelson

I took Ruben to lunch at the Black Angus restaurant on Fireweed Lane, carrying with me a handwritten agreement giving me exclusive permission to use the name in the bar and restaurant business. In return Ruben would be able to sell his books, records and cartoons in the bar.

Ruben was a very talented cartoonist. He used his cartoon skills in making the transition from radio to television. He employed a stylized cartoon duck to portray weather conditions while he announced them—the duck thenceforth becoming a staple in the cartoons he created. Ruben was a creative genius, not a marketing genius. He manufactured far more cartoons than he could sell, but he loved crafting them, so I told him I would purchase all that he produced. He made me promise not to hoard them and so I’ve given them away over the years for special gifts and for charity auctions, but I’ll admit I still have a pile of them.

1997 - Mike & Ruben. © Mike GordonI should mention that Ruben drew the Chilkoot Charlie’s logo for me. During my mountain climbing years I borrowed an idea at my wife Shelli’s suggestion from the Iditarod dog racers, who postmark decorative cachets, carry them the 1,000 miles to Nome, postmark them again and then give them to supporters as collectibles or sell them to raise money. Ruben drew cartoons for each of my climbs with Chilkoot Charlie in an outfit appropriate for each mountain. Denali saw him dressed as a sourdough with mittens and a hat with ear flaps; for Kilimanjaro he wore the uniform of a French Legionnaire; for Elbrus he had on a big Russian-style fur hat; for Aconcagua he wore a serape and gaucho; for Vinson he was shaking hands with a penguin on the summit; for Kosciusko he wore an Australian Outback hat and for Everest he was a sourdough again. I would have them postmarked at a location near the base of the mountain, carry them to the summit and have them postmarked again somewhere near the base. Upon returning home Ruben hand-colored each cachet, a job he dreaded but performed with kind-hearted tolerance, and signed them. I then numbered and signed them. They made great gifts and I was proud that friends collected them, some framing them and hanging them in their homes or offices.

Ruben, without hesitation said, “Chilkoot Charlie’s! That’s a great name for a bar!” and signed his name in the space I had provided.

Chilkoot Charlies logo, by Ruben Gaines, © Mike Gordon

Chilkoot Charlies logo, by Ruben Gaines, © Mike Gordon

No one at the time could possibly have conceived the notion that someday the name of the bar would surpass the name of the legend or its creator—certainly not me, but it did and in the process, I hope, it has helped to perpetuate both legend and creator. Ruben, nor his family, ever republished his works, though the writings are copy written. Everything is out of print and has been for decades, and without the club’s name out there for the last forty-five years, creator and legend would quite possibly be all but forgotten.

Fortunately there’s been a renewed interest in Ruben and his works with the arrival of Anchorage’s Centennial Celebration. His personality was recently featured in Anchorage: The First One Hundred Years—A Theatrical Tour (1945-1955), at Cyrano’s Off Theatre Playhouse, along with the reenactments of the baseball games he and Ed broadcasted to the Bush. I have been asked to participate in a profile of Ruben soon to be featured by KTUU-TV.

But Ruben’s contributions have not gone unrecognized. He was appointed Alaska State Poet Laureate in 1973 and in 1985 was entered into the Alaska Broadcasters Association’s Hall of Fame.

Our arrangement, however, became lopsided with Chilkoot Charlie’s—the nightclub—so successful I became embarrassed, feeling like Ruben had gotten a raw deal, so I took him to lunch again—this time to the Corsair, the high-end basement restaurant on West 4th Avenue that Hans Kruger ran for many years. I had another hand-written agreement with me that promised to pay Ruben a specified amount of money each month for the rest of his life, and I did.

Rusty Heurlin is universally recognized as an Alaskan master artist. His original paintings are highly sought after and very expensive. He is in the same lofty realm as Sydney Laurence, Eustice Ziegler, Ted Lambert and Fred Machetanz. Rusty is not as well known outside Fairbanks as the others, but he is very well known in the interior, or to anyone knowledgeable about Alaskan art. Large paintings of his used to adorn the Fairbanks Airport walls, though on a recent visit I didn’t see them. His paintings portray wondrous pastel hues of the Arctic and his depictions of the interior and far north—the coldness, the alpenglow, the winter skies and the lifestyles of the Indians and Eskimos—are unsurpassed. Rusty was also a world class character and an expert at the shell game. He prided himself on knowing the capital of every country in the world and relished winning bets at it. I turned up with my future wife, Shelli, one day to close on the purchase of my little house near Chilkoot Charlie’s Ester, prepared for Rusty with the name of a recently reorganized African country and capital due to a coup d’etat. He lost that game for a case of beer, which didn’t further endear me to him.

Rusty’s best pal was the radio personality, poet laureate, raconteur, cartoonist, and my friend, Ruben Gaines. Ruben was in the habit of traveling to Ester for Thanksgiving with Rusty to “cook a buzzard,” as he explained. The first time Ruben made this annual sojourn after the local opening of Chilkoot Charlie’s he sauntered into the bar with Rusty in tow and announced to Jim Ables, my manager, that he had a deal with me which, among other things, allowed him to drink free at Chilkoot Charlie’s for the rest of his life, whereupon Ables, a character in his own right said, “Oh, he did, did he?” and proceeded to “six-pack” the two of them with screwdrivers. I showed up not long afterward—the bar top now a sea of screwdrivers—and the bullshit was so deep within an hour that the handful of patrons in the place had to dash to their cars for frozen hip-waders.

By way of explanation, it used to be legal to buy someone as many drinks as you wished; never mind whether they wanted them. Better that they didn’t. “Six-packing,” in the ‘70s and ‘80s, was commonplace. The recipient was either supposed to drink the purchase on his behalf or wear it. David Asplund, the son of the first Municipality of Anchorage mayor, who also owned Asplund Supply Company, used to like to set new records with the number of drinks he bought me in Spenard. He kept upping the ante until he one afternoon 164-packed me with scotch and sodas, pouring the contents of half a dozen large, 64-ounce pitchers over my head. I happily rang up the purchase, went home, changed my clothes and returned to my business. You might be guessing that money was easier to come by at the time. It was.

There was a little shed/showroom beside Rusty’s log cabin where he and Ruben had teamed up on a marvelous production called “The Great Land.” It was essentially the story of the Vitus Bering Alaska discovery years proceeding, as I recall, up to the pioneer gold mining era. They also teamed up on one called “The Great Stampede,” about the Alaska gold rush that has been on display in Fairbanks and Valdez. There was a small seating area and an ingenious system of pulleys to showcase large, original paintings by Rusty depicting various stages of Alaska’s early modern history. As light flooded the paintings, Rusty, stationed off to the side, would pull the cords moving one painting out of the light and another into it in synchronization with an historical narration recorded by Ruben. It was a unique presentation by one of Alaska’s best artists and one of its best writer/raconteurs. Rusty had Shelli and me sign his guest book, already signed by many, including such notables as author James A. Michener.

Chilkoot Charlie and other stories by Ruben Gaines, illustrated by Betty Park, photo © Jana Ariane Nelson

Chilkoot Charlie and other stories. © Ruben Gaines, illustrated by Betty Park, photo by Jana Ariane Nelson

Another noted Alaskan artist, A. E. (Betty) Park, a friend and fan of Ruben’s, did a masterful job of personifying Chilkoot Charlie, Six-toed Mordecai and illustrating their titan, epic adventures in a couple of Ruben’s collected story publications. She did the artwork for the cover of his two LPs recorded with Frank Brink—Vat I and Vat II. Betty also created a wonderful small, detailed clay model sculpture of Chilkoot Charlie at the behest of the Anchorage City Council to be placed in front of City Hall on 4th Avenue.

She described the ordeal: “They told me his head was too knobby. Then they said, ‘You’ve got to remove the liquor jug from his hand.’ In the end I took back the statue and gave it to Ruben.”

What the residents of Anchorage wound up with is a politically correct block of carved granite sporting a plaque commemorating William H. Seward that would offend no one other than those with artistic sensibilities.

Ruben gave that statue to Shelli and me during our last Christmas together. It will eventually belong to the Anchorage Museum, as well as the original mural behind the South Long Bar at Chilkoot Charlie’s, the inserts representing different Chilkoot Charlie tales, such as The Bear, The Mosquitos, The Tundra Boar, The Purple Goat and The Moose Mouse and a 4’ x 8’ painting of both Chilkoot and nemesis Six-toe Mordecai, all of which Betty painted for me to display in the club and long ago I replaced with copies skillfully rendered by unknown artist Michelle Wade.

Ruben certainly wanted to be remembered—more than anything else—for his poetry.

Comfort

When I am young

and suffering my first

unthinkable reverse and,

wounded to the core, go

crawling to another who

will listen to it all,

I hope I find no

counselor, who robs

me of my grief and tells

me disappointment is a

simple seasoning and

failure an adjustment

and the grinding misery

is just the firm caress

of God, but one who will

agree that it’s the end

of everything and wisely

wails with me and follows

in my stumbling, broken

path awhile

Ruben Gaines

Collected Ruben Gaines II

Copyright © 1988 Ruben Gaines

I knew how Ruben felt when he wrote those lines because I didn’t want to hear about what a long, productive life he had lived. I spoke emotionally about it during his memorial at the Senior Center that Ruben referred to affectionately as “Gaffersville” on April 7, 1994. I didn’t want to be comforted by how he didn’t suffer greatly in the end. I wanted to wail out loud about the loss of my dearest friend, a mentor, a man who treated me as his own, whom I shall miss every day of the rest of my life.

I felt [and feel] unworthy and unequal to the task of remembering a man who stood head and shoulders above most of the men I’ve ever known. Ruben was pure of heart and soul. There wasn’t an ounce of malice, greed, meanness or arrogance in him. He loved and respected all things. Politically, I would argue vainly about the impracticality of some position steadfastly presented by one who cared only for the welfare of his fellow man–the devil with practicality.

“That’s just an excuse, man!”

Ruben loved women, too. He loved my wife, Shelli. I used to kid her, not without a certain uneasiness, that if Ruben had been thirty years younger he and I might have had a real problem. When I’d pick him up to go out to dinner and Shelli wasn’t in the car with me, the first thing out of his mouth would be not, “How’s it going?”, but “Where is she?” Early on I gave up trying to confide in Ruben any sort of grievance with Shelli because he would invariably announce, “I’m on her side, man.” And he was right to be.

Speaking of going to dinner with Ruben; most people don’t realize that Ruben was part Japanese. That’s right. He claimed to be Volga German—Hagelganz his real family name. I used to call him Hassleblad to get his goat. But I really believe he was part Japanese. We used to take him to different kinds of restaurants for the sake of variety until one night about ten years into the program we thought “Why not?” and took him to a sushi bar. Eureka! Ruben was never exactly a virtuoso with chop sticks but he took to sushi and sake like a fish to water.

For a guy who never forgot any other thing he ever learned in his life, he couldn’t for the life of him remember what to call any of that stuff. All he knew was that he loved it and for ten years, roughly once a month, we never ate anywhere but a sushi bar. Just so you know, that’s roughly 120 orders of maguro sashimi, 240 hotategai, maybe 50 orders of amaebi, 100 orders of suzuki usuzukuri, 240 orders of tobiko with uzura no tamago and 2,000 servings of sake, not to mention the plum wine and green tea ice cream afterwards. Ruben is not only missed by family, friends and avid followers but by the Sushi Bar Association of Alaska. “It’s a wonder a guy didn’t sprout gills for God’s sake!”

Ruben Gaines in Halibut Cove, 1990's. © Mike Gordon

Ruben Gaines in Halibut Cove, 1990’s. © Mike Gordon

How much less enriched our lives would be without Ruben Gaines. By entertaining us all those years he also helped to define us. Alaskans have a sense of unique identity that is to a large degree the gift of one man—a wonderful, supremely talented man who fit perfectly into the time and space he occupied.

When Ruben lived in a trailer in east Anchorage Shelli and I would arrange for our housekeeper to clean his place for him once a month or so. When he got to where he couldn’t drive anymore we set up an account for him with Alaska Cab, so all he had to do was call them and they billed me on a monthly basis along with the club’s regular billing. Ruben’s idea of hydration was coffee in the morning and boxed wine from noon on, so we got him a water dispenser and pestered him to drink water regularly.

We helped organize his seventieth and eightieth anniversary galas, which were grand affairs at the Captain Cool Hotel. At one of them I got a kick out of giving him a cane with an air-squeeze horn and rearview mirror attached to it.

Ruben suffered some of the standard health issues of the elderly, but the end came while living in his ex-wife’s condominium off of Tudor Road. He fell in the kitchen one day and couldn’t get up. No one, including Ruben, knew how long he was on the floor without food or water until his young female neighbor and admirer discovered him. She took care of Ruben’s garbage and in return he took her to brunch weekly—though he’d have certainly done it anyway—her driving and he treating. When Ruben didn’t answer the door, which turned out to be unlocked, she called me at Chilkoot Charlie’s. My manager, Doran, and I drove directly to the condominium to find paramedics on the scene as well as his daughter, Christine, who had flown up from California because he wasn’t answering his phone. Between the two of us, Christine and I were able to convince Ruben to visit the ER at Providence Hospital, something she had been unable to convince him to do on her own.

Ruben never recovered from that accident. Shelli and I visited him on his death bed at Providence Hospital. He was cheerful. Accepting his fate without remorse and with the ever-present wry sense of humor he said, “If I’d known I was going to live this long I’d have taken better care of myself.” As we held his hand, reminiscing for the last time, he said, “You guys have made a difference.” It was a wonderful sentiment and Shelli and I were heartened to hear it.

Ruben made a difference too—a big one. Over time I’m sure the people of Alaska will return the love he showered upon them by remembering his creative genius and his contribution to Alaska’s ethos. No one has ever been more Alaskan than Ruben, nor contributed more to what it means.

The characters Ruben created will live forever as our treasured heritage: Chilkoot Charlie, Six-Toed Mordecai, Suzy Floe, Mrs. Maloney. Even crusty old Doc would have to say, “He was a pretty good kid after all, dagnabbit!”

Recollections of the Great Alaska Earthquake

4th Ave. near C St. in Anchorage. Photo by U.S. Army, 1964. Figure 45, U.S. Geological Survey

4th Ave. near C St. in Anchorage. Photo by U.S. Army, 1964. Figure 45, U.S. Geological Survey

Prelude

In the South Central area of Alaska on March 27, 1964, the largest earthquake ever recorded on the North American continent hit its unsuspecting inhabitants. Initially recorded at 8.6 on the Richter scale it was later revised to 9.2. Striking at 5:36 p.m., it lasted for more than 5 minutes.

What follows are the recollections of Doug Brundage. Doug writes this remembrance many years later for two simple reasons: write it before it is forgotten and to share with those interested.

The Day

It was Good Friday, a day of remembrance for those who are called Christians to recall their Jesus’ death on a cross. We lived in an area of town called City View. It was a short drive of approximately 5 miles into the heart of town. That day my mother and I had gone into the downtown area of Anchorage, Alaska to the All Saints Episcopal Church to hear and remember the story of Christ’s death. It was a small church with beautiful blonde woodwork on the inside of its sanctuary. The cross on this special day was shrouded in a dark drape.

Upon leaving, the sun shown in the early afternoon sky; snow was on the sidewalks and streets of the city, compacted by foot traffic and made icy over the past several months. Other than being Good Friday, it began as any other early spring day. However, it would end in tragedy.

I was 7 years old and in the second grade at Airport Heights Elementary in the City View area of Anchorage. Marc, one of my good friends at the time, invited me to his house for his birthday party that afternoon. We enjoyed his party then afterwards gathered around the TV in his bedroom to watch Fireball XL5. This program was kind of a ‘Star Trek’ made with puppets and miniatures. Hey! I was only 7 years old. I thought it was pretty good show.

The program was over at 5:30. We then decided to go outside to throw some snowballs before it got dark. Snow covered the streets, sidewalks, and yard areas of the homes. The skies were now grey. We began to hurl a few salvos of snow at each other when off in the distance to the west this deep rumbling noise could be heard. Before I knew it, the rumbling was upon us, telephone poles swinging around, wires loosening and drawing taut, whipping sounds, parked cars bouncing from side to side. At first I thought it was quite novel. I had been through many earthquakes before, but this was much different than previous events. It seemed I could run and walk while watching my feet, however my feet would not land where I thought they would because the ground would move either up or down or from side to side.

The shaking and rolling didn’t subside as in previous earthquakes, but it intensified. It just didn’t stop. Marc and I gathered in the middle of the rolling street trying to maintain our footing. He could not remain standing and fell to his knees, crying with fright. Still standing, I was concerned about fissures opening below my feet and swallowing us. Around us could be heard the sound of icy streets cracking and breaking below our feet. Luckily I didn’t see any big openings forming. I looked at the ground intensely waiting for the first signs of a chasm. I didn’t want to drop into the earth and be crushed, I thought. I kept looking – side to side, behind me, below my feet.

In the background I could hear the sound of breaking glass, the street waves, ground groaning/rumbling, and wires whipping through the air. Other neighbors of Marc’s ran out of their homes and began to gather in the street. One neighbor said he had 76 goldfish all over his living room floor. The ground rolling and groaning continued.

This was Good Friday! I recall from my Sunday school lessons that there was a large earthquake when Christ died. Is it just a coincidence that we are having an earthquake this same day? Is everyone in the world experiencing this earthquake? Is this the end or is it His return? In retrospect, pretty big thoughts for a 7 year old.

About a block away my mother was running towards me yelling, “Doug! Doug!” Following her was my older sister by 5 years, Barbara, running in her bare feet on the snowy street. How ridiculous that looked, I thought. Why is she leaving my brother and sister to run to me? They reached me and realized I was okay, but Barb’s bare feet were getting cold against the snow. The shaking was still as strong as ever when my mother told Barb to get into a parked car. It wasn’t locked.

“It’s not our car,” Barb said.

“Get in the car!” replied my mother.

This was easier said than done, because the car was bouncing and rocking so violently it made it difficult to get inside the car. In time, Barb was able to get inside to get her feet off the snow and ice.

When was it going to stop? About this time the shaking and rolling began to diminish. It seemed like minutes before all the shaking settled. I couldn’t be sure the rolling had come to a halt because of shaky limp legs (nerves). The homes around us were still standing. The telephone poles were returning to their normal stable position. Trees that earlier were swaying and whipping from side to side were now calm.

I re-entered Marc’s home with him to see and hear his mother crying, for her china cabinet’s contents had crashed to the floor and shattered to pieces. It was a sorry site – glass everywhere. Sorry, but I didn’t seem too concerned as there were more important things to be concerned about. We came through it! The homes were still standing! Needless to say the birthday party and sleep-over was off.

Walking back to my house with Barb and my mother I could see my father rounding the corner in his truck. He was driving pretty fast, I thought. I’m sure he was anxious to get home to see his family and the results of the earthquake. He was driving home when the quake hit. I remember him saying at first he thought he had a flat tire because he couldn’t control the truck.

We were altogether, home and okay. There was minimal damage at our house. We were lucky. Items fell from shelves, dressers tipped to the side, the gun cabinet class broken, a small GE portable TV toppled but it still worked. Our house was built on nice gravel soil. The house rode on the gravel like ball bearings.

In other parts of Anchorage they were not as fortunate. The neighborhood area ‘Turnagain By The Sea’ was devastated by liquefaction. The neighborhood was built on clay. When the shaking began, the strongest of foundations could not withstand the movement. Homes were torn apart.   This area and the 4th Avenue area downtown made the covers of the nation magazines.

First Night

The night sky fell quickly after the shaking halted for it was not yet springtime. Electrical power was out across the town. We turned on the Zenith Trans-Oceanic shortwave radio to catch the news. KFQD radio was quickly operating on FCC emergency rules, as was KENI radio. Reports from ham operators were relayed into the stations. People were relaying that either they were okay or making comments like “We don’t know were Jim is!” First person accounts of the destruction at Valdez and Seward came over the stations throughout the night. Both ports we would soon find out were completely destroyed either by the initial shake or subsequent tidal wave.

Numerous aftershocks rocked the house. I remember finally getting to sleep; however upon waking up I noticed I had wet the bed! Yes! I wet the bed, how embarrassing! That was a first. I supposed it was caused by stress or anxiety. The radio played on with status reports from around town and scratchy ham radio reports from the bush.

J. C. Penney's after most of the rubble has been cleared from the streets. Photo by G. Plafker, 1964. Figure 5, U.S. Geological Survey

J. C. Penney’s after most of the rubble has been cleared from the streets. Photo by G. Plafker, 1964. Figure 5, U.S. Geological Survey

Aircraft in-bound to Anchorage were now suspended in air looking for suitable landing fields. The tower at the Anchorage International Airport had collapsed. The runway wasn’t usable. Marc’s father was an F-27 pilot for Northern Consolidated Airlines (NCA). He was one the pilots looking for a safe landing site. It’s my recollection that he had to make a short field landing at Merrill Field that night.

I remember hearing reports about the downtown area; people were trapped under the rubble of Penney’s department store and trapped in the elevators. There were several people crushed inside their cars in front of the Penney’s building by the collapsed front of the building. It was a long night.

Water!

Tap water wasn’t available. The water supply was contaminated because of broken water and sewer lines throughout town. Everyone was told not to drink tap water. We melted a yard full of snow over the fireplace in our home to create drinking water.  I guess it was okay. A day or two later we went to the elementary school with big containers to get chlorinated water. That was bad stuff. It was like drinking swimming pool water, Yuk! Also, days later we had shots or what we called “monkey juice” to drink. I believe this was to prevent typhoid or something.

School

School was out for the year…almost. Airport Heights Elementary School was opened as a building of refuge for many homeless Alaska Native villagers. Many coastal villages were wiped out by the tidal wave. The numbers of loss of life was disputed at the time. One sunny day, shortly after the quake, I went the short distance across the street to the school to enjoy the playground equipment. I was likely the only Caucasian there since the school was temporary housing for Alaska Native villagers. I had a good time on the merry-go-round. Also there was a local news reporter, Jeanie Chance, and a film crew. I later saw a movie of the Alaska earthquake containing a clip from that day at Airport Height and the merry-go-round, Alaska Natives, and one whitey (me). Many years later, I took my son Justin, about age 10, to Alaska to show him my old hometown. In the old 4th Avenue Theater there was a gift shop showing that same film on DVD. I told Justin his dad was on that video. I recall he didn’t seem too impressed.

I do remember going back to school, double shifting, to finish out the school year.

Contact with the ‘Outside’

‘Outside’ is a term used by Alaskans in reference to the lower 48 United States of America. For example an Alaskan could say, “I’m going outside for the winter” and a fellow Alaskan would know they are traveling to the ‘States’ and not literally going to be standing outdoors for the season. A neighbor down the street, mother to my friend Craig, was a long distance telephone operator. It is my understanding she was able to get word out to our relatives in the State of Washington that we were all okay.

Downtown Visit

A day or so after the quake we, as a family, traveled to the downtown area. I don’t think I was too excited about seeing the damage. I recall being scared by downed electrical lines. The wires were dead, but to a little kid it was still scary. I recall looking down the streets and observing them to be fixed in a wavy, up-down and side-to-side pattern. We crossed over a high to low fault that traversed the downtown and 4th Avenue. As you traveled around town some businesses appeared to have little or no damage while just a short distance away, there would be total destruction. The disparity could likely be attributed to building techniques and/or soils.

The Cabin

Later that year we traveled to our cabin near Kenai Lake. Traveling the Seward Highway South out of Anchorage en route to the Cooper’s Landing area you pass through the little town of Portage located at the end of Turnagain Arm. It wasn’t really a town, but consisted of a gas station, restaurant, auto repair business, and other miscellaneous structures. The buildings in Portage were destroyed. The land around Portage had sunk, I believe, approximately 8 feet, as a result of the earthquake, thus the tides rose against the existing buildings. There wasn’t much there to begin with, but now there was less. In subsequent years the structures melted into the muddy marsh.

The bridge across the Kenai River had collapsed. I recall there was a temporary bridge. I don’t know if this is true, but I heard the water from Kenai Lake rushed the bridge, lifting then dropping the bridge through its supports. Another myth is a report of people seeing Kenai Lake sloshing from side to side. I don’t know about that. I don’t remember seeing any ‘slosh’ markings around the shoreline. I don’t remember if it was that year or soon after that dad bought a ½ gallon of fudge ripple ice-cream at Hamilton’s Place, a small grocery store near Cooper’s Landing, and we ate it on the remnants of that old bridge.

The cabin was intact. A small fissure between the cabin and the road was visible approximately 6” to 8” wide. We dropped stuff down the crack. We couldn’t see straight down its depth, so we didn’t know how deep it was.

I recall extending our travels to Homer, Alaska to view the sights. We spent the night in a motel on the tip of the Homer Spit. Travel onto the Spit was limited to low tide, since the Spit area had sunk several feet during the earthquake.

The Years to Follow

Anchorage, Denali Theater, U.S.G.S. Website

Anchorage, Denali Theater, U.S.G.S. Website

Alaskans just seems to take assessment of a job to do then do it. That was my recollection of the rebuilding process of Anchorage. The downtown area, specifically 4th Avenue, was cleared of its many bars and rebuilt. Buildings damaged in the earthquake were either repaired or leveled and rebuilt.

Some of the upscale housing area of ‘Turnagain by the Sea’ that was destroyed by the earthquake due to liquefaction was left ‘as-is’ to be renamed ‘Earthquake Park’. Years later I visited the area and noticed trees and vegetation had regrown shrouding the destructive power of years past.

The school year began, as usual, for me at Airport Heights Elementary, for 3rd grade. I started to play hockey that year with my friend Mike. A few years later, Mike would have to move away. He left his dog, Cassias, with me.   My father, Bruce, would die a few years later at the young age of 44, leaving three kids and a single mom who had not yet turned 40.

We closed down my father’s business, Bruce Electric, selling tools and trucks for cheap. Auctions and garage sales I learned to despise. My sister, Barbara, finished her high school career at East Anchorage in 1969. The next year she was off to a Southern California college. My brother, Jeff, mother, Shirley, and myself would continue living the Alaska life as best we could. My brother and I always felt these were different times since dad passed; money was tight. We would bounce to the Olympia, Washington area for a year then return for a year so brother Jeff could graduate from his familiar East Anchorage High school. Following my brother’s graduation the family would move permanently to Lacey, Washington.

Later

After several years of college, brother Jeff, would return to Alaska learning and working as a journeyman electrician. I would graduate from North Thurston High school in Lacey, Washington and Western Washington University in Bellingham where I would meet and marry Teresa Anderson. We would have one son, Justin, daughter-in-law Becca, one grandson, Beau, who now lives in Edmonds, Washington. I would complete 34 years of service as a Systems Analyst/Project Manager and retire to the kind and gentle town of Sequim, Washington.

I do get back to Anchorage occasionally to visit my brother or cousins. With each visit the familiar human built landmarks of my youth are replaced. Although structures and roads may change, the ever-present Chugach Mountains to the East mark my hometown, Anchorage.

Betty Park

 

"Kobuk", painted in 1961 by Betty Park, © Jack Griffith

“Kobuk”, painted in 1961 by Betty Park, © Jack Griffith

 

Not long ago, I dug through Dad’s small black case, shoddy with age after half a century, discarding most of the fissured, tough, neglected tubes of oil, in various sizes and disheveled colors. I let out a huge sigh. A few of Dad’s carving tools lingered in the bottom of the old case. Dad was multi-talented, I thought, and his ability to carve was a genetic gift he was given by my grandmother.

In the mid 50’s, Dad enrolled in oil painting classes at Anchorage Community College. He was already an experienced artist, having spent many years carving delicate wooden figures and larger pieces in soapstone, but he felt it was time to try his hand at a new medium. His instructor at ACC was an up and coming Anchorage artist named Anna Elizabeth (Betty) Park. Dad raved about her classes, and during that winter, spent many hours sequestered away in his basement cave, painting to his heart’s content.

Betty graduated from Syracuse University as a graphic artist and during WWII, used her art talents in her work in the WAC. The GI bill presented opportunities and she attended Scripts College in Claremont, California taking graduate art courses. Selling her work to book passage on an Alaskan Steamship, she landed in Seward in 1950. Five years later she moved to Anchorage.

Frank Brink's "Sounds of Alaska", graphics by Betty Park; © Jana Ariane Nelson

Frank Brink’s “Sounds of Alaska”, graphics by Betty Park; © Jana Ariane Nelson

Betty began teaching at Anchorage Community College, and over the following years built a solid reputation as an artist. She loved painting Eskimo children, Denali, and the Northern Lights. She designed stage sets for the Alaska Festival of Music, the 1965 AMU production of The Miracle Worker and Frank Brink’s 1967 production of Tyon of Alaska as well as cover designs for Brink’s record albums, a Lord Baranof emblem for the program and tickets for the Centennial presentation Lord of Alaska.

President Eisenhower was presented with one of her paintings of Denali, which hung in the White House during his term in office.

Betty had the spirit of a true pioneer woman. She purchased ten acres near Dimond High School and with her mother lived in a difficult to find homestead roughshod cabin that provided a roof over their heads while Betty worked on the larger home she was building on her property. It was truly an Alaskan do-it-yourself project, with friends helping from time to time.

Early on Betty’s mother, Irene, was the potter and Betty the painter, but eventually Betty tried her hand at the pottery wheel and mastered that as well. In 1961 they were digging a drainage ditch on their property when they realized they were digging up pure clay (of which Anchorage became quite familiar during the 1964 earthquake.) Experimenting with it, and other clay mediums, they came up with a product that fired well, but was slightly different from the Inlet clay other potters used. Using the same experimentation on glazes, they found natural plant sources in bracken and fern varieties for color sometimes literally right outside their front door. They signed their pottery, “The Parks, Anchorage” and the date.

Bean Pot, Anchorage Clay by Betty Park, 1968. © Jana Ariane Nelson

Bean Pot, Anchorage Clay by Betty Park, 1968. © Jana Ariane Nelson

In a magazine article titled Betty Park, One Gal, Many Talents, by Phyllis Eileen Davis, Betty said “Most people try to keep mud and dirt out of their homes, but I dig drainage ditches and bring the dirt inside.”

Staff writer, Evey Ruskin quoted Betty in a Daily News article as saying “Our clay is a little different in consistency and color from Inlet clay, but it fires the same. We have an inexhaustible supply; whenever I need more clay, I just dig my drainage ditch a little further out.”

By 1961 Dad had a new love in his life, a Siberian husky pup he named Kobuk. Kobuk was his constant companion, and even Mom, a cat lover, adored Kobuk. John and I were engaged that fall, and Jack was at college, but the three of us decided we should ask Betty Park if she would paint Kobuk for a Christmas gift for Mom and Dad. Always up for a challenge, Betty agreed.

I was excited to finally meet this wonderful artist and almost immediately after arriving on our first visit, as if to give myself more credibility, I blurted out that Dad had taken art classes from her several years before. Betty, of course, said she remembered him and was very complimentary, even though he didn’t take classes long. Dad’s painting phase was short lived, and he had returned to carving with gusto.

Betty was very gracious, sincere, and immediately put us at ease. I liked her straightaway. Although my memories of Betty, now 55 years later, are dim, I do remember her impossibly warm and welcoming smile, and how comfortable she made us feel. She was not stuffy or distant like many elders of that time, but truly seemed to take an interest in us as human beings, not wet-behind-the-ears nineteen year olds.

She admitted to us that the only drawings she had done of dogs were for a few commercial jobs (dog food bag illustrations) on the East Coast many years before, and she had, in fact, never painted one in oil. But Betty apparently loved challenges, and was definitely up for the task. When we brought Kobuk to her for “sittings”, he complied, resting quietly, with his paws crossed, as was his usual pose.

To say she captured Kobuk is an understatement. He practically jumps off the canvas, seemingly as alive today as he was 55 years ago. His painting now holds a place of honor in Jack’s home in North Carolina.

Photo courtesy of the Daily News; late 1960's.

Photo courtesy of the Daily News; late 1960’s.

These were the first of many trips John and I made to visit Betty Park. She exuded creativity and inventiveness. She was down to earth, and although she had no children of her own, she was at ease with young people. Betty took great pleasure in encouraging us to be creative. She was the model of someone who could visualize a dream and make it materialize, whether that be commercial art, pottery, set designs, oil paintings, illustrations, or planning and building her own home. On our trips to visit her, I remember carefully skirting the lumber and building supplies strewn here and there in the already small cabin she and her mother called home. The smell of oil paint, turpentine and the earthiness of clay permeated every square inch of the cottage. She was proud of her rough cabin and way of life and proud of the life she and her mother had built on the outskirts of Anchorage. I never felt any unease from her that her home didn’t match those showcased in Better Homes and Gardens. To this day I admire that ability to be completely at ease with oneself and environment, without any pretext of wanting to be someone else or have more. I think Betty was very self-aware and aware, too, of others, in a way we don’t always see today.

Chilkoot Charlie and other storiesw1, by Ruben Gaines, illustrated by Betty Park, photo © Jana Ariane Nelson

Chilkoot Charlie and other stories, by Ruben Gaines, illustrated by Betty Park, photo © Jana Ariane Nelson

 

Betty and Ruben Gaines were great friends and when he decided to publish some of his Chilkoot Charlie stories, he asked Betty to illustrate them, as well as his other books.

I asked Mike Gordon about his collection of Betty Park artwork, and this was his response:

“I do have a large mural behind the main bar that she painted. It portrays Chilkoot on one side and Six-toed Mordecai on the other swapping lies into which I place different smaller paintings she did representing various stories from the Chilkoot Charlie tales. I had the original inserts copied years ago and framed the originals, which are in my office. I have maybe eight of them.

“I also have two 4 x 8 paintings of Chilkoot and Mordecai individually, in standing positions, that adorn our offices. I had those copied too, and they are on display in the bar itself.

Inside cover of Chilkoot Charlie tales by Ruben Gaines. Autographed by Ruben Gaines and Betty Park; photo © Jana Ariane Nelson

Inside cover of Chilkoot Charlie tales by Ruben Gaines. Autographed by Ruben Gaines and Betty Park; photo © Jana Ariane Nelson

 

“Shelli and I have a foot-high statue of Chilkoot made by Betty, given to Ruben, who in turn gave it to us. It was made as a model for a larger one that the city council was discussing putting in front of city hall. They quibbled about various issues with it, including the fact that he had a jug of whiskey in his hand, so Betty took it back and gave it to Ruben and the statue was never erected.  It is very cool, even sans jug!”

 

Though I cannot say I knew her well, I will always remember this remarkable woman whose brief passage through my life left a lasting imprint of a life well lived, though far too short. Betty passed away at 55, in 1972 from a brain tumor.

 

Ruben Gaines honored Betty with this poem:

 

Betty Park copy

Bobby McGee’s

© Jgroup | Dreamstime.com - The Thug Photo

© Jgroup | Dreamstime.com – The Thug Photo

Roy Mayer was too simple-minded to have a sense of humor, but he was big—very big—and built like a tank, weighing nearly 300 pounds. When he walked through the door he blocked out the light. What he lacked in intelligence and sensitivity he more than compensated for with callous, reptilian aggressiveness. He was a bully.

I have harbored an inbred contempt for cowards and a hatred of bullies since conception and I contend that the two are generally interchangeable. Bullies do what they do because they’re cowards and at least some cowards do what they do because they’re bullies. I quickly realized that Mayer, with only one thing on his mind, the only thing there was spatially room for—pounding on people—was someone I didn’t need or want around. No matter that we had mutual acquaintances and he had yet to pose a threat to me personally.

Mayer worked around town as a bouncer in the late 70s, which gave him the opportunity to beat up hapless customers under the guise of protecting a licensed establishment. When he wasn’t so employed he would roam around Spenard’s nightspots freelance, including Chilkoot Charlie’s, pounding with his ham-sized fists anyone who got in his way. He provoked a fight in Koot’s one night when I happened to be only a few feet from the scene. After our doormen had broken it up and gotten Mayer out the door I said, “I don’t want that stupid son-of-a-bitch in here anymore,” which I knew was bound to present a problem for me when I encountered Roy elsewhere.

In January of 1979, a new competitor arrived in Anchorage’s nightclub scene in the form of the 500-seat, upscale disco, Bobby McGee’s Conglomerate, a chain-operated establishment headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona. The flagship of the financially-troubled International Marketplace, at 741 Tudor Road, it was a popular destination, but it didn’t present a competitive problem for Chilkoot Charlie’s since it closed at 1 am and the preponderance of our business was between then and the state’s official 5 a.m. closing hour. In fact, many patrons and staff from Bobby McGee’s arrived at Chilkoot Charlie’s after McGee’s closed for the night—a boon to our business.

It was a different story for Donovan’s, a club at the corner of Benson Blvd. and C Street owned by Frank Reed, Jr., which was more of a direct competitor of Bobby McGee’s and losing ground in the battle with the Outside operation, “Outside” being the definitive word. I encountered Frank at the Bird House Bar on the Seward Highway one afternoon and he complained to me about “…Outside operations coming in here and taking business away from us locals. I’m not going to take it sitting down,” he said boisterously over one too many cocktails, though he sounded like he meant it.

I had been told that Roy Mayer, working as a bouncer at Bobby McGee’s, was somehow connected with the owners, and that they were in turn connected with another sort of family in Arizona. There was a fair amount of that sort of talk in those days, and there were in fact attempts made by that element to infiltrate the local industry’s topless dance clubs.

I was single at the time and dating a nice young lady by the name of Gaylene, who I later discovered, had been a school classmate of my future wife, Shelli. One Sunday afternoon we were sipping on cocktails off to the left side of the club when, who should walk in the door of the nearly empty establishment but Roy Mayer.

I was as shocked as everyone else, though I had been more-or-less warned, when I read over morning coffee, “Arsonist’s Torch Destroys Bobby McGee’s,” on the front page of the October, 16, 1979 issue of the Anchorage Daily News. Reporter George Bryson wrote: “An arsonist torched Bobby McGee’s restaurant and disco club early Monday morning, fire inspectors say—polishing off a job that someone attempted and failed two weeks earlier.”

The article went on to say that the developers of the center had been facing foreclosure proceedings since the previous July by the Alaska National Bank of the North. They included Jack and Joyce Moore of Seattle, owners of Alaska’s Qwik Shop stores; Terry Pfleiger, an Anchorage realtor; and Robert Anderson, who had recently moved Outside.

In his official report dated January 31, 1980, Investigator Ludwig of the Anchorage Fire Department, said, “When the engine companies arrived on location they found two fires on the west side of the building in an alcove. One fire was located on a window sill on the north wall of the alcove and had burned through the window into the disco area of the bar. The second fire was located on the window sill of the east wall and along the edge of the wall on the ground. The fire had burned through the window into the women’s room. The janitors who were in the restaurant discovered the fire and called the Fire Department.”

The next day the paper announced that fire inspectors said there was going to be a “massive manhunt.”

“’I can guarantee that some people are going to be upset with us before this thing is over,’ said John Fullenwider, chief inspector for the Anchorage Fire Department. ‘We’re going to go after him…this was the largest incendiary fire we’ve ever had in the Municipality of Anchorage.’”

The Daily News article explained that the fire department was going to focus on “three categories of high-probability suspects,” disgruntled employees, similar businesses in
Anchorage trying to eliminate competition and owners of the building or the business trying to defraud their insurance company. The Daily News said, “The department estimated the damage to Bobby McGee’s at $3.5 million…”

I rarely describe myself as prescient, but as Mayer marked my presence, marched directly through the middle of the club, and right up to the bar, I sensed trouble in the offing. I could almost see those tiny wheels furiously laboring away in Mayer’s melon-sized skull as he ordered and threw down a straight shot. He ordered another drink in a pint-sized glass while I watched him watching us out of the corner of my eye, explaining to Gaylene that we were about to experience some real excitement of the unpleasant kind.

Alaska’s independent insurance agents put up $5,000, matched by the owners of Bobby McGee’s, for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator. As it turned out; it wasn’t a disgruntled employee or a case of insurance fraud, but the owner of another business—Donovan’s—who was arrested, along with his accomplices, and charged with the arson—as well as conspiracy, a gun violation and using an explosive device—and tried in a lengthy series of plea bargains, convictions, appeals, overturns, exonerations, partial exonerations, change of venue and final convictions. Interestingly, the charges also involved an attempt to burn down Donovan’s itself on December 31, 1979, after Bobby McGee’s had already been burned to the ground. The entire legal drama lasted five years, bringing shame and near financial ruin to one of Anchorage’s most notable families.

There was no more prominent family in Anchorage than the Reeds when I was attending Anchorage High School in the ‘50s. And there was no parent more involved with her children’s school activities than Maxine Reed (1911-2009). Her daughter Pauline (1942-2013) was a classmate of mine in the 1960 graduating class; her brother Frank, Jr. was a couple of years younger. At the time of his arrest Frank, Jr. was a prominent Anchorage stockbroker who had pioneered the sport and business of flying hot air balloons over the Anchorage bowl, a burgeoning enterprise that was quashed in fairly short order by insurance companies afraid of liabilities and unwilling to insure. Many Anchorage residents were upset about that outcome because it was uplifting on a beautiful day seeing all those colorful balloons floating around the bowl area. I can only imagine how Frank, Jr. felt about it.

Mayer now left off his conversation with the bartender and strode over to the railing, towering over us. After insulting my mother and my legitimacy, then asking, “Who the f*#k do you think you are, 86ing me out of Koot’s?” and making a less-than-polite comment to Gaylene, he doused us both with his drink. I immediately stood up, grabbed my drink, holding it in my right hand as I looked up at the big galoot, who said, “You throw that drink on me and I’ll f*#king kill you!”

The first trial ended in a hung jury, confirming the defendants’ assertion that they couldn’t get a fair trial in Anchorage due to the extensive news coverage. Reed and David L. Smith faced re-trial on six counts of conspiracy, possession of illegal firearms and several arson charges. Reed was reported to have owned two Anchorage supper clubs, but I’m only aware of his ownership of Donovan’s. They were losing money and Reed and his partner Dr. Don E. Burk, a local dentist, were also charged with trying to torch their own restaurants. Billy Ray Halverson was contracted by Don McDaniel to burn down Bobby McGee’s. McDaniel was an electrical contractor who owned a nightclub called The Point After on Northern Lights Boulevard. Halverson, a government informant, fled the scene before carrying out the arson and McDaniel ended up as a key government witness, pleading guilty to conspiracy charges in a plea bargain agreement.

Billy Ray Halverson and Don McDaniel had also been apprehended attempting to enter Donovan’s supper club on New Year’s Eve carrying partially filled cans of gas. They were even carrying keys to the building. McDaniel did his time in the big house and returned to Anchorage. He walked into the Midnight Express nightclub one afternoon where a bunch of his cronies hung out, located across the street from Koot’s where the Organic Oasis is now. Dale Vaughn, the manager, lifted his head off the bar and welcomed him with, “Hey McDaniel, got a match?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, I sloshed the contents of my drink directly into Mayer’s face. Splat! Had it not been for the railing separating us he’d have been instantly on me, but it took Ron some time to smash his way through seating and around the booth to get to me. By then I was in a position to defend myself, meaning simply trying to fend the guy off while rapidly back-peddling and trying not to fall to the floor, which would have meant a trip to the hospital at best—to the morgue at worst.

On he came, closing in for the kill, until he finally had me against the west side of the building. Miraculously, I had backed into a fire exit door equipped with a panic bar. Impacting the panic bar hard with my rear end I found myself standing alone in the parking lot, but expecting my tormentor to appear at any moment. By then, however, the staff of Bobby McGee’s was able to restrain Mayer. Given an all-clear signal by the restaurant employees, shaken up but exhilarated, I grabbed Gaylene and we got the hell out of there.

The second trial of Reed and Smith, held in San Diego, resulted in their conviction on charges related to the burning of Bobby McGee’s, but they were acquitted of attempting to burn Donovan’s.

The February 27, 1984 issue of the Daily Sitka Sentinel said,” The court decision said Reed was in on planning the destruction of McGee’s…and Smith was to do the actual burning. An unsuccessful attempt was made Oct. 2, 1979, to burn down the building using paper-wrapped gasoline-filled cans. Damage was limited primarily to the outside. Two weeks later another attempt involving pouring gasoline on the floors and igniting it by a delay fuse was successful.”

During his bar-hopping around town, Mayer made it known that he wasn’t done with me and I made a point of avoiding places where I thought I might encounter him, partly because a couple of days after the incident at Bobby McGee’s, Vern Rollins, an outlaw friend of mine, took me aside and, alluding to the alleged connection that Mayer had in Arizona, cautioned me against taking any action against him. He was obviously worried I might. I said, “Listen Vern, I didn’t start this problem and I don’t intend to pursue it, but I’m not going to let Mayer push me around—or put me in the hospital—and I’ll do what I have to do to protect myself.”

I encountered Frank Reed, Jr. in Chilkoot Charlie’s one night years later, his arrogance undiminished by his time in prison. After our short conversation I reflected that bullies and arsonists (not the mentally deranged arsonists who can’t help themselves) represent different shades of cowardliness. The first pick on people they perceive as unable to defend themselves and the latter resolve their problems illegally, at the expense of others because they can’t face up to their own failures. When cowards run up against unexpected resistance they detour to the next victim, as Mayer did when I threw a drink in his face and Vern reported to him that he was barking up the wrong tree, and a businessman who burns down his competition is I suspect capable of doing just about anything. Having once gotten away with arson, who knows what the next inconvenience—or resolution for it—might be?

Remembrances of Alaska

Bill, Judie and Todd, 1967.  © William F.H. Zersen, Colonel, USAF (Retired)

Bill, Judie and Todd, 1967. © William  F.H. Zersen, Colonel, USAF (Retired)

In 1963, when I was stationed at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas as a 1st Lieutenant, we were notified that the C-130 Squadron we were in would be transferred to Elmendorf AFB in the summer of 1964. Some of the C-130’s we flew had skis on them. Our primary mission was to resupply the dew-line sites on the Greenland ice cap, and Alaska was quite a bit farther from Greenland than was our current location. I knew nothing about Alaska and I wondered if we would be using our ski-equipped airplanes for landing on lakes in Alaska in the wintertime.

Our mission had us fly to Sondrestrom Air Base in Greenland and fly resupply missions of mostly fuel and food to the radar sites out of Sondrestrom on the ice cap.

Flying from Alaska to Greenland was an unknown to us so in November of 1963 an aircraft that I was the navigator on was dispatched to fly to Elmendorf and from there to Greenland.

Arriving from Texas, we landed at Elmendorf, and were told that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. It was a gloomy day at the Officer’s Club that evening. However, we still had our job to do, so the next day we took off for Resolute and Greenland.

We knew there were a number of places we could land along the way like Edmonton, Yellowknife and Churchill, but these sites were not the most direct route to Greenland. After checking all the possible routes, we flew through Resolute for refueling.

Resolute sits very close to the magnetic North Pole. Consequently as we flew closer and closer to Resolute our magnetic compasses quit. They obviously couldn’t point straight down so we were required to change to grid navigation. It was a unique experience for me. Even though I had been taught grid navigation, this was the first time I actually had to use it! It was a bit scary, but we made it through Resolute in fine shape.

I really loved Alaska after transferring to Anchorage in 1964, and told myself that if I were stationed there when I was ready to retire, I would stay there permanently, although that didn’t happen.

We had a pilot who was a skier so many of us purchased ski equipment and we would go to the Fort Richardson slope in the evenings since it was lighted. However, I got tired of standing in line holding on to the ski tow rope and then zipping down the slope in what seemed like two minutes or less. I soon gave up on skiing. I was really looking for cross-country skiing where a bus would take you up in the a.m., then skiing down, you stopped for lunch, and then took the rest of the afternoon to come down the mountain.

We had a great time ice-skating at the Peanut Farm. We skated on their rink and even ventured out on the frozen creek during the day. We wore our skates into the building, with the skate guards on, had a hot toddy and peanuts, and threw the shells on the floor.

When something came to town it was a big deal! On the opening day of the movie The Sound of Music everyone came in formal attire and we had champagne and hors d’oeuvres at the intermission in the movie. Entertainers like The Christy Minstrels played to a packed high school auditorium.

I was amazed at the giant vegetables at the Palmer State Fair. And how about the vegetable and fruit stands along the highway where items were marked with the price and a person put into a jar what was owed and then left! No one was there to make sure you did not cheat. But who wanted to cheat?

Winter brought rough driving. I left my apartment in my Volkswagen one very cold morning and drove to Elmendorf. Going down the road and having to make a slow left turn, I found that my brakes were frozen so I slid into a big bank of snow. No harm done but it was panic time at first

Once after a big snow that was quite heavy, I went down one street and ended up on top of the snow. The bottom of the Volks was flat and the speed of the car carried me on top of the snow; all four wheels were off the ground. It took a lot of snow shoveling to get me down from the snow! I purchased that Volkswagen in Texas before I moved to Alaska because of the air cooled engine. But I did have a gas heater installed in it after I purchased it; the heater hooked directly into the gas line so when I turned it on I had instant heat! Plus, the Volks gave me much better mpg, especially when the gas in Alaska was about 35 cents per gallon, a terrible price as compared to what we were used to in Texas at 17-20 cents per gallon.

I remember one time when I was leaving my apartment in the morning for work, I began to turn the doorknob to open the door when a massive earthquake hit. Lucky for Anchorage it was just a big jolt, and no continuous earth movement, but it did buckle me to my knees!

I’ll never forget seeing Turnagain Arm where Earthquake Park was established. Absolutely amazing how the land peeled back about three feet every time the earthquake rolled back and forth.

I love to fish, but I found out that it is not wise to go out fishing by yourself. One such day I drove toward Palmer and found a nice stream that looked very inviting. I parked the car and walked to the creek and began to fish. After a while, and not catching anything, I began to wade down the creek in my hip waders and I encountered a German Shepard on the bank. Why the dog was there I don’t know, but it was extremely hungry. I happened to catch a small fish and I turned back to work my way back to my car, but the dog began to growl and followed me along the shore. When I got to the place where I needed to get out of the creek to get to my car, I decided to throw the fish to the dog, who scurried after it and I beat it to my car. I decided that after that it would be better to fish with at least two people or bring along a weapon like a .38!

I met my wonderful wife at the Chef’s Inn. Judie was an airline stewardess with Alaska Airlines. When the earthquake hit on Good Friday in 1964, their plane was inbound to Anchorage. The pilots lost all contact with Anchorage, so they turned around and landed at McGrath. They all stayed in the airport terminal. There were about 40 people, if I remember right. The next day, without communications, they flew to Anchorage, made a pass over the runway to see if it looked okay, and then landed. I don’t know if the pilots had communications with Elmendorf or not.

Air Command (SAC) had B-47 bombers on rotation to Elmendorf during those years. On one of the B-47s were a couple of officers that I knew. After their stint on alert, they were given a day off before they flew back to their base in the lower 48.

My Academy classmate called me and we ended up in my Bachelor Officer’s Quarters (BOQ) room for a drink and then he and the other officer recommended that I join them as they were going to the Chef’s Inn for a steak. The other officer knew an Alaska stewardess and he was going to invite her to dinner.

As I remember, the Chef’s Inn did not have a dancing license for the floor, so people took off their shoes and danced on the piano bar. The pianist was a man named Chuck Miller who had made famous the recording of The House of Blue Lights.

After dinner, as we were leaving, I asked Judie for her telephone number. Since she was with the other officer, she didn’t feel she could give me the number. But, I persisted and told her that he was leaving the next day to go back to the lower 48, and I would be still here in Anchorage. She then casually gave me the number and didn’t expect me to remember it. But, I did remember it and we were married in May of 1965.

One of my favorite restaurants was the Rabbit Creek Inn down the Seward Highway. It had fabulous food.

Another was the Garden of Eatin’. They served wonderful food in an old WWII Quonset hut. The owners came up from the South about April and the place was open until about the end of October. They were the real snowbirds!

There was also a great Chinese restaurant where we would come in with a group of 10-12 people and just tell them to make food for all of us! It was a great place to go, especially after being out skiing for the day! I believe the restaurant was either on 3rd or 4th Avenue.

***

My son and I did come back to Alaska in 2006 for Halibut fishing in Seldovia. We had a great time and each of us ended up with a 50 lb. box of cleaned, fileted halibut to take back to the lower 48. We only fished for about 45 minutes once the captain got us to his favorite fishing spot. This same son was born in Alaska at the Elmendorf Hospital in January 1967.

 

Gordo’s

Tiffany using continental telephone.   © Mike Gordon

Tiffany using continental telephone. © Mike Gordon

My mentor, Skip Fuller, from whom I had purchased The Alibi Club and transformed into Chilkoot Charlie’s, had an older brother named Red who claimed to have owned all the “B-Girl” joints in Alaska at one time. In 1971, Red had only one liquor license left, The High Hat Bar on Fourth Avenue, which had recently burned down leaving him in search of a new location. At that time, the thirty-days-per-year operational requirement was strictly enforced. There were no extensions allowed by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board like today, albeit for a price. Red was also going through a divorce and wanted to keep the license out of the reach of his estranged wife, so Skip suggested that he put fifty-one percent ownership in my name and that I find a location and put it to use. I had never met Red before we made our handshake deal.

There were only about six months left in which to make everything happen, at a time when there were few good locations available because of the anticipated pipeline construction. But being young, ambitious and confident, as well as flattered that I had been given the opportunity, I agreed. The result was Gordo’s, located in leased space on the East side of Gambell Street, just north of 15th Avenue, with only four parking spaces in front. I received the Certificate of Occupancy in the last hour of the last day to open in compliance with the thirty day operating requirement. A health inspector, not surprisingly, had been my bane. Our architect had designed wall tiles in the bathrooms up to a lower level than the inspector deemed appropriate. That last afternoon the tile installer and I removed the bull head row along the top and substituted plain white tiles up to the required level, since we didn’t have enough of the beautiful blue designer tile left on hand. It looked horrible, but it got us open. The whole experience pissed me off so much I vowed to do something about power-hungry bureaucrats and run for the Anchorage City Council.

Gordo’s was the first disco—and the nicest bar in Anchorage at the time—with oak paneling, black high-backed booths, deep blue carpeting and an onyx black dance floor.   I installed a telephone switchboard and continental phones on all the tables so people could communicate between them, an idea I had seen in a successful club in San Francisco named The Library. The walls were decorated with original modern art painted by noted local artists like Joan Kimura.

Opening night, I was behind the bar in a tuxedo when the sewer backed up—badly. Apparently, some building materials had found their way into the sewage lines. The place, full of people, was flooding and I could visualize the money badly needed on opening night evaporating into a river of sewage. Fortunately, the landlord, who owned OK Plumbing and Heating located next door to Gordo’s, was in the crowd, and hollered over the bar, “Mike, I’ll go get a snake!”

Wayne, behind bar at Gordo's; © Mike Gordon

Wayne, behind bar at Gordo’s; © Mike Gordon

After a year of overseeing Chilkoot Charlie’s, bartending at Gordo’s, meeting myself coming and going, losing money all the while, I was desperate for an idea that would kick-start the new club. Then one afternoon, Dennis Powell, an old high school buddy who owned The Embers, a successful strip club on East Fifth Avenue, came by Gordo’s for a few drinks and suggested I turn it into a gay club.

“This place would make a great gay bar. You’ve got the phones on the tables, fine art on the walls and parking in the rear! Ha! Ha!” I had to admit, it made sense, but I was mortified by the idea and had never even been in a gay bar myself.

I was unsure whether there would be a sufficiently large clientele in Anchorage to support the business. I had to be sure since I wasn’t likely to be able to change it back to a place for heterosexual patrons because of the stigma. The only gay bar in town, sitting right next to The Embers, was The Bonfire, a small one-room little joint that did not require the support of many customers. It was owned and operated by Ed Fletcher, who I would come to recognize as one of the few truly evil people I have ever met—a bad guy right out of the pages of a Charles Dickens novel.

The gay community is a complex subculture that contains all of the elements of our larger society, including intellectual, white and blue collar, law abiding and criminal, good and bad. In large cities like San Francisco there are gay bars that cater to specific kinds of clientele, like bikers, lesbians and those interested in different kinds of fetishes. The difference, at least in the small community of Anchorage, was that they were all lumped together and more-or-less under one roof, so it was hard to avoid those elements one might have preferred to.

I paid a visit to The Bonfire. Luckily, I ran into another high school acquaintance, Toby, known as “The Pekinese” in the gay community because of his facial features and bisexual orientation. His favorite saying? “I’m a better woman than you’ll ever have and a better man than you’ll ever be.” He assured us we’d get plenty of business. After all, we’d already had an experience with the gay crowd coming into the place and taking over the dance floor one night until my night manager turned up the lights and closed the place early.

Toby, posing in a Gordo's fashion show; © Mike Gordon.

Toby, posing in a Gordo’s fashion show; © Mike Gordon

When the appointed evening arrived, an attorney regular of mine was sitting at the bar after playing handball. He used to like playing a little stunt on me. He’d order a Schlitz and when I turned around to give him his change he would have consumed the first one and was now ready for another. He’d do that once or twice and then be on his way home. But this night he noticed guys on the dance floor dancing with one another, and when he brought it to my attention, I said, “I’ve been wondering how I was going to tell you I’ve decided to turn the place into a gay bar.” Justin jumped off his barstool and disappeared quicker than a moose into an alder patch.

Approaching the end of that first year, Gordo’s was firmly established, making money (though we still had plenty of debts from the previous year’s operation) and was scheduled to host all the major gay parties and celebrations. My second wife, Tiffany, and I treated the gay community with respect, unlike Ed, who used The Bonfire as his personal trap line for young males, but who no longer had a monopoly on the clientele.

My manager at the time was a very obese queen named Wayne, a.k.a. Auntie Wayne. Auntie Wayne must have weighed three hundred fifty pounds, drank a case of Schlitz a day and was comical-looking in a dress with his big, bushy, red beard and size twelve tennis shoes. He got along with most everyone and was a draw in the gay community. He, as well as T-Bird Tommy, an infamous gay character around Anchorage all the way back to my high school days, used to delight in running into me in the check-out line at my neighborhood Carr’s grocery store, embarrassing me by acting out in front of everyone. Our best waiter at Gordo’s was a young man named Jeff Wood, aka Myrna, who now owns the most popular gay bar in Anchorage, Mad Myrna’s, which hosted Chilkoot Charlie’s forty-third annual company party.

At that time, I was a trustee on the Bartender’s Health Welfare and Pension Trust Funds, and took Tiffany to Miami for an annual convention. One night when we were out visiting gay bars to see if we could discover interesting trends or novel ideas, Ed Fletcher struck. We returned to our hotel room late and I had just gone to bed when the phone rang. It was my partner in Chilkoot Charlie’s, Bill Jacobs: “Are you sitting down?”

“No. I’m lying down,” I said.

“Good.   Gordo’s burned down.”

Fletcher had hired a couple of his young boyfriends to torch the place. Shortly after closing, the two men forced open the back door of the club, sloshed in a couple five gallon cans of gas and threw a match to it. I later learned that the explosion almost torched the boys as well. Gordo’s was a total loss. The poor lady who owned the beauty salon next door was ruined. There wasn’t nearly enough insurance to pay all our bills and it broke my heart, but I was forced to sell Red’s last liquor license to clean up the financial mess. I paid off the artists, whose works had been hung on consignment, out of my own pocket.

Mr. Whitekeys was entertaining the folks at Chilkoot Charlie’s and wrote one of his typically zany songs called The Night They Burned ‘Ol Gordo’s Down, in which he asserted that the fire had been started by a flaming queer getting in too close proximity to a five gallon can of gasoline.

Auntie Wayne in a dress; © Mike Gordon

Auntie Wayne in a dress; © Mike Gordon

Unsurprisingly, plenty of people surmised I had burned the place down myself because it was well known that we had been struggling. The truth is we were actually beginning to prosper. It was Ed Fletcher who had been struggling. Fortunately, the Anchorage Fire Department had a very able young fire investigator named John Fullenwider, later to become the chief, who tracked down the arsonists and convinced them to turn state’s evidence against Ed, who was convicted of the crime and sent to federal prison.

Before Ed’s sentencing, his cook at The Bonfire, a guy named Cooksey, walked out of the kitchen one night, said, “Hey Ed, I need to talk to you,” then stabbed him three times in the torso with a big butcher knife. Miraculously, Ed survived. When he got out of prison he was hired as a cook at the Beef and Brew Restaurant, which preceded Elevation 92 on Third Avenue overlooking the Anchorage harbor. I called them and told them they had hired a convicted arsonist. They said they needed a cook and I said, “Good luck. You’ll never get any of my business.”

Ed Fletcher got his in the end. What Cooksey had failed to accomplish with a big butcher knife, Ed managed all by himself. Operating a restaurant and bar on the Homer Spit called the Porpoise Room, he drove home to Anchor Point after closing the place one night, went to bed with a cigarette in his mouth and burned to death.

The Idle Hour Country Club

 

“ The past is never dead, it’s not even past.” William Faulkner

 

Sign Idle Hour-1It’s been years since I was at The Idle Hour, an upscale supper club that began life in 1938 with white tablecloths and floor to ceiling windows that overlooked spectacular sunsets and the silvery Lake Spenard. In that romantic setting, I had an almost proposal over lobster and prime rib that left me with fond, if embarrassed, memories.

By 1971, when I left Anchorage, The Idle Hour had been destroyed by fire a couple of times, reputedly for the insurance. In 1970 it reappeared as the Fancy Moose and in 1978, the Flying Machine. In 1980 it incarnated as the Fly By Night Club.

During The Idle Hour’s early days and following WWII, Alaska’s cafes, restaurants, bars and nightclubs posted signs forbidding entrance to Natives and Filipinos. In 1945, Tlingit Indian, Elizabeth Peratrovich eloquently reminded Alaska’s Territorial Legislature House of Representatives of the Bill of Rights that prohibited racial discrimination. Her message was heatedly contested as unnecessary. The House took another view, however, when a general at Fort Richardson declared the military off limits to Anchorage if those were the kinds of signs they had. The signs were removed.

Elizabeth Peratrovich and Governor Gruening at the signing of the Anti Discrimination Act in 1945.

Elizabeth Peratrovich and Governor Gruening at the signing of the Anti Discrimination Act in 1945. Compliments of VILDA.

On my infrequent trips to Anchorage, I have tried and failed to find where The Idle Hour had once stood. I couldn’t even find Lake Spenard. So I started asking relatives and former Anchorage High School classmates what they remembered. Judy Mueller Jett thought it had been where the present Millennium Hotel is on Lake Hood. That confused me. I remembered The Idle Hour on Lake Spenard. Judy replied that in the early seventies two deep channels were cut, connecting Lake Spenard with Lake Hood to accommodate a rapidly growing number of small aircraft – a major source of transportation in Alaska. The west end, she explained, is Lake Hood and the east end is Lake Spenard: Ah, one lake with two names.

When she mentioned swimming there as a girl, I recalled the overcast sky and freezing water, kids shrieking over giant black leaches, wooden picnic tables, skinny hot dogs, tart yellow mustard and buns gritty with sand, and even my baggy swimsuit worn under a sweater. I was five years old and couldn’t swim, but that day I was Esther Williams.

Jesse BellLake Spenard recalled that the parents of another classmate had danced the Lindy Hop at The Idle Hour in the 1950’s, “causing a sensation.” Erryl and his father of Brown’s Music Store had delivered a piano there. Others celebrated birthdays, engagements, graduations and other special occasions at the supper club. One friend had gone there as a girl with her parents to get a free kitten.

In a recent obituary, I learned Miss Wiggles – a showily limber African American entertainer – performed there in the late sixties and mid-seventies. Jana Nelson recalled seeing tall, blond Christine Jorgenson, the first known transsexual, on The Idle Hour’s stage in 1963. “She sang and talked, answering questions. The place was packed and the show was quite good…”

As for the club’s owners, Mike Gordon thought Jimmy Sumpter might have once owned it. This is a reasonable speculation. In those years, Sumpter owned and operated, among others, two local topless/strip clubs including The Kit Kat and The Sportsman Too. He was a colorful character and on the periphery of — if not directly involved in — a couple of homicides. His connection to these and other questionable dealings appear in true crime stories by Tom Brennan, Kim Rich and Mike Gordon.

In 1984, the former Idle Hour was (legally) demolished to make way for The Millennium Hotel. With a nod to the surrounding aviation, including a busy international airport and two of the site’s former hot spots, the hotel named their pub, The Fancy Moose and their restaurant, The Flying Machine. Their website describes the pub as on Lake Hood, while the restaurant – in the same building — overlooks Lake Spenard.

Ten or so years ago, when I was in Anchorage, I met my uncle Don for breakfast at a local diner. He was my last living Harper uncle: half Athabascan, the youngest of my grandmother’s ten children. He had grown up in Fairbanks, a shady little town, if there ever was one. In Don’s time, Fairbanks was smaller and everyone knew everything that happened: from which prominent daughter or wife was having a third abortion to which father, brother, son, boyfriend or neighbor was hiding out, and how a local family had been startled to find bags of cash stuffed under the potatoes in their root cellar.

The diner had a no smoking section, but someone’s cigarette wafted our way and I moved closer to the window, inhaling the cold fresh draft. I was working on a novel and asked Don what he knew about crime in Fairbanks. Specifically arson. He settled back in the booth and twirled his coffee cup. “Guys came up from Anchorage,” he said, “and practiced setting fires. They’d burn shacks and houses and trailers out near the airport and on the road from Anchorage.”

My eyebrows shot up. “The police didn’t care?” (I said “police”, but until statehood in 1959, U.S. Marshals assisted the local police and were THE presence for criminal activity outside local jurisdictions. After statehood, Alaska State Troopers replaced the Marshals.)

“They looked the other way,” Don said with a shrug. Ah, favors being done and money exchanged, I thought. “Certain ones you stayed away from,” he added. “They hated Natives. They’d pull you over, walking along or in a car, didn’t matter, and beat you up.”

“Why?” I hated this.

He shook his head. “No reason needed.”

I let this settle then said, “Was anyone killed in these practice fires in Fairbanks?” I was pretty sure no one had died in The Idle Hour fires — which had led some to feel better about the arsonists, being so careful and all.

Don shook his head he didn’t think so. His expression, however, left me unsure.

Later, I wondered if The Idle Hour’s arsonists had “practiced” in Fairbanks? And had they been part of The Company, a motley group of Anchorage criminals who attempted to organize after the manner of the mafia? Their first president was John Rich, later murdered at the behest of two other members. Not off to a great start, I’d have thought.

My lingering romantic images of The Idle Hour and Anchorage have taken a beating. The seedy underside of my hometown is not dramatic or picturesque like a noir movie. It is alarming, tacky and ugly. I mean arson? Murder? Come on, crappy people do that. And what about those who lined their pockets and looked the other way?

Still, taking a deep breath, I remind myself that every town has its underside. Not that that makes it right, mind you. I’m just being philosophical here.

Recently, I came across The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai, who wrote, “The present changes the past. Looking back, you do not find what you left behind.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dancing Past the Drunks – Revisited

Gretl Benson (left) and Guky Doane (right).  Compliments of Tina Arend, Gretl's daughter.

Gretl Benson (left) and Guky Doane (right). Compliments of Tina Arend, Gretl’s daughter.

On my way to ballet class, I nearly tripped over the drunk passed out on the 4th Avenue sidewalk.  Only a few blocks to go, I thought, hurrying as fast as I could without stepping on any of the soggy cigarette butts or shards of broken whiskey bottles that were strewn about.  I tried to think about my technique at the barre, but it was difficult while my nose was being assaulted with that nasty smell of too much liquor and other unsavory odors arising around me.   I will just have to hurry faster, I thought.

Gretl Benson and her sister Guky Doane opened the Rhythm School of Dance in the early 1950’s at 5th and G Streets in Anchorage.  Originally professional dancers with the Vienna Opera Ballet, they married American servicemen, came to America in 1947 and not long after, arrived in cold, remote Anchorage.

Anchorage was short on television at the time and there was no such thing as video or DVD players.  At North Star Elementary our cultural studies consisted mainly of listening to the Standard School Broadcast, a once a week radio program that brought us culture in the form of classical music.  Every Thursday for a half hour we sat quietly at our desks and listened to the broadcast.  I laid my head on my arms on the desk, closed my eyes, and instantly become a famous ballerina pirouetting across the world stage.

Current movies at the Empress or the 4th Avenue Theater provided inspiration for my growing attraction to dance.  Leslie Caron and Fred Astaire in Daddy Long Legs and Leslie paired with Gene Kelly in An American in Paris only fueled my yearning.  Opportunity suddenly knocked at my door when Gretl and Guky’s dance studio opened in Anchorage.

I was ten when Mom enrolled me in the Rhythm School of Dance, taking ballet from Gretl and acrobatics from Guky.  In my mind, they had a perfect partnership.  Gretl was skilled in ballet; Guky in acrobatics.  Mother didn’t let me take tap and I’m not certain who taught it, but it was offered as well.

When I shut my eyes, I can still almost see the studio at 5th and G Streets.  I remember the large room where I took acrobatic lessons from Guky, doing splits and handstands, cartwheels and backovers.  Sometimes Guky put a strong canvas strap around my waist to keep me from falling when I tried flips.  Her instruction gave me enough proficiency to become the Acrobatic Corp Leader at Anchorage High School for my Junior and Senior years.

Gretl’s compassion, grace and gentle teaching style warmed my heart and she became one of my favorite teachers. All the hours we practiced at the barre doing Plies and Tendus, Releves and Degages have stayed with me, even to this day.  I am taking ballet again, but as a senior now.  Often when I am in class, doing our routines at the barre, my mind goes back to those precious days at the Rhythm School of Dance in Anchorage and I forget for a moment that I’m over 70 and will never be as limber or skilled as I was when I was ten.  Now I have something better: a soul-deep love and appreciation for this art form that has carried me through a lifetime.

Gretl and Guky instilled in me a passion for ballet and all dance forms that have remained with me.  They WERE the ground floor of dance in Anchorage.  Regrettably, Guky passed away in the early 1970’s, and Gretl in 2004.  But as the years march on, they are still fondly remembered and loved very, very much.

And then there were the drunks.  I remember the drunks.  During Territorial days in a frontier town with questionable roads, keeping the family car running was pretty much a necessity, and rarely did families have, or could afford, the luxury of two automobiles.  Usually I was driven to dance class on Saturdays, but not infrequently the family vehicle was needed for something else and I had to take the bus.  Even before the People Mover started service in July of 1974, there was a bus system of sorts in Anchorage.  My twin, Jack, and I rode it daily from the corner of Lois Drive and KFQD Road (now Northern Lights Blvd) to downtown Anchorage to attend first and second grade in the Quonset Huts.  It was the same bus route I took to my dance class on Saturdays.

The bus station was on the notorious east end of 4th Avenue, a seemingly long number of sleazy blocks that harbored more bars than anything else.  To get to the studio at 5th and G Streets, I had to walk past all the noisy taverns and the drunks and the addicts loitering on the sidewalks and falling out of the doorways.  Funny how one’s memory works.   I suspect that most of the time Mom or Dad drove me to class and only very rarely did I need to get to or from the bus station.  I’m sure I complained loudly about those walks, and most likely was told to walk as rapidly as I could, keeping my distance from the drunks.  Sometimes that meant walking on the muddy street, and I decided that wasn’t an option.  And I wasn’t to talk to any of them; I was to avoid eye contact as well.  Although quite nervous, I remember at first scurrying along quickly, looking down at the sidewalk in front of me as much as possible.  That was particularly helpful in avoiding the cigarette butts and broken bottles that littered the sidewalks, along with other despicable items, such as horrendous and nauseating piles of spittle and other grossness.  Later I learned to walk jauntily along, shunning the dreadful spots, wearing a persona of confidence that was pure bravado.  Now and then I furtively glanced in store windows while my peripheral vision allowed me to steer clear of the human dross and piles of slime on the sidewalk.

Fortunately, never did anything truly frightening happen.  The only time I felt a real chill was walking past an establishment one day and accidentally connecting my gaze with a disheveled man slumped against a building.  Our eyes met and I swear that the man had no soul.  Whoever was behind his eyes was already gone to a place far away that I had no desire to know about or even visit.  Over the years I have thought about that man often and the experience was enough for me to decide to stay away from substance abuse.

Our remote brand of society was incredibly innocent in those years and it was not uncommon for parents to think nothing of their young kids traipsing downtown by themselves.  I don’t recall any children being kidnapped, or assaulted or murdered.  It was the adults and the gangsters and the Spenard Divorces that kept the police busy.

I often think about those bizarre walks past the odiferous, obnoxious drunks on 4th Avenue.  But even those memories don’t detract one iota from the memories I have of Gretl Benson and Guky Doane and my great love for practicing ballet at the barre.

Working for the GOV

 

Gov. William A. Egan, compliments of VILDA, Alaska Digital Archives

Gov. William A. Egan, compliments of VILDA, Alaska Digital Archives

In January of 1966, I returned to Anchorage after a semester of graduate school at Oklahoma State University. According to OSU’s catalog, their department of Clothing, Textiles and Merchandising had courses in design, but when I arrived design had been eliminated.

I had two small grants, however, which persuaded me to stay, The cotton industry grant I discovered involved testing a variety of cotton weaves; my job was to change the sheets on students’ beds while my supervisor, a grim faced, white-haired spinster tallied figures. If I’d been working on an oilrig, I couldn’t have been further from my dreams of dress design.

Back in Anchorage, I applied for work everywhere, but the job outlook was as bleak as winter. Mom tried to cheer me up, dragging my gloomy self to movies and to window-shop at places like Welches and Smart Shop and Theresa’s, Anchorage’s nod to stylish fashion and quality clothing.

One gray Sunday, Mom saw a listing in the newspaper for a new movie. When Dad dropped us off at the Fourth Avenue Theater, the sidewalk in front was empty and the box office closed. Mom had misread the time and we were an hour early, so we walked a few blocks to the Captain Cook Hotel’s coffee shop.

The Whale’s Tail had curved banquets and one of the nicest counters I’d seen. With its subdued lighting, the atmosphere was relaxing and posh, even elegant, compared to other coffee shops in town.

When we entered, three men in business suits were chatting in a booth directly ahead. I immediately recognized Jim Irany who taught sociology at the University of Alaska where I’d graduated the previous spring. Short and swarthy with a genial expression, he clearly liked people. Students called him simply Irany. When he waved me over, Mom headed for the counter, gesturing for me to go ahead.

After a bit of small talk, he asked what I was doing. I mentioned graduate school then said I was looking for a job. He looked pleased. “I’ve opened an Anchorage office for the Department of Economic Development for Governor Egan.” Then he said, “I’m looking for a receptionist/secretary.”

Oh boy. I nodded encouragingly.

“There’ll be some typing and dictation…” Seeing the doubt on my face, he added, “Shorthand isn’t necessary.”

Whew.

“Think you’d be interested?”

“Sure, yes!” I was stunned by this sudden turn of events.

“Good. Can you start Monday, say 8:30?”

Yes, absolutely, hallelujah, hurray!  I nodded, beaming at him and his colleagues, who’d been observing our interchange with interest.

Back at the counter, I don’t remember what we ate. As for the movie, I wish I could tell you what it was.

Come Monday, I discovered Irany’s office was just down the hall from John Hellenthal’s office. Hellenthal was my aunt’s attorney and one of the best-known lawyers in Anchorage. He and Irany were pals and in the coming months, he frequently wandered into our office to visit, sometimes carrying a fifth of something or other to ask if I’d run down to the corner coffee shop for ice.

It took the State of Alaska six weeks to issue my first paycheck. Around week four, Irany, noting my sour face, asked if I’d been paid yet. No I said. Shaking his head in disgust, he pulled out his wallet and handed me a bill. “Will this tie you over?”

“Well, that was generous of him,” Mom said as we stared at the $100 bill. I’d never seen one before. I had a coat on layaway and this loan was immensely cheering.

One of Irany’s tasks was to write a speech for Governor Egan to give to a local business group. A week later, Irany and I walked a few blocks over to The Woodshed on Third Avenue. It was a lunch meeting — maybe Rotary — for forty or fifty, mainly men. Since I carried the speech, I was seated next to the Governor. There was no space on the table — already crammed with food — and I didn’t want to put the manila envelope on the floor, so I sat on it. When it was time for Egan to speak, I handed him one nicely butt warmed page at a time.

Spring turned into summer, the air turned balmy and the days lengthened. When we left the office around five, the sky was so light, it looked like noon. Every Friday afternoon, Irany’s blond fiancé came by and the three of us – joined by one or two others — would go for a drink at The 515 Club or other watering hole.

People I otherwise would never have met came through our office. Through the tall, handsome Chris Von Imhoff, Director of Tourism for Alaska, I met Elaine Atwood, heir to the Anchorage Times. One evening after work, a friend and I joined Chris and Elaine at The Woodshed. She was taller than I was, infinitely blonder and wore a white sheath-style dress and carried no handbag. I wondered where she kept her keys, money, etc. She didn’t seem to have anyone trailing behind with her things.

“Are you a stewardess?” she asked, casting a look at my black linen suit, which I’d worn with a gold pin designed by Ron Senungetuk.

“No, why?” I was surprised. This was my best suit, made from a Vogue pattern no less. I suppose it was a little sober next to her blazing white.

“What you’re wearing, I thought you were a stewardess.”

Then she waved to a group heading upstairs and disappeared for the rest of the evening.

Later, when I described the evening to my parents, they were amused, especially Dad. He’d worked on the Atwood home and Evangeline, the Atwood matriarch, often come out to talk.

Dean Dickson, compliments of Jan Harper-Haines

Dean Dickson, compliments of Jan Harper-Haines

Then there was William Dickson, Dean of the College of Business, Economics and Government at UAF. His photograph in the 1964 yearbook is accompanied by Robert Service’s poem, RAISING THE FLAG. It begins with the words: Fine clad and arrogant of manner

This was a fairly accurate metaphor. A handsome man, with prematurely silver hair, Dickson’s non-smiling urbanity and sophistication intimidated me no end when I’d interviewed him the previous year for the campus newspaper, The Polar Star.

Dickson was on Governor Egan’s Employment Advisory Commission and frequently in Anchorage. That summer, Labor Union Leader, Henry Hedberg, invited him and my charismatic boss to a meet and greet with Anchorage’s political and business movers and shakers.

When Irany showed me the invitation to the event at the Hedberg home — one of Anchorage’s few contemporary and architecturally designed houses — I casually let it slip that I had dated Dennis, Henry’s youngest son. That is, until Dennis abruptly left me to marry, well, someone else.

Irany’s eyebrows rose and he leaned forward. So I went on to tell him that a few years ago Henry Hedberg had enraged my father over something or other, prompting Dad to write a quarrelsome letter to the editor of the Anchorage Daily Times, in which Dad called Hedberg a communist. Mom, having hoped to one day be Dennis’s mother-in-law, was horrified.

Irany shook his head, smiling.

The following Saturday evening, Dean Dickson picked me up in his car. For the occasion, (and with a nod to Elaine) I’d smartened up with not-for-the-office high heels and a sleeveless white sheath with black buttons.

If Dennis’s father was disconcerted when I — daughter of his nemesis — entered his spacious house that sunny evening with Dean Dickson — a key invitee — he didn’t show it beyond a fleeting glare. Surrounded by so many of Alaska’s power brokers, I was soon easily invisible.

As for Dennis, he and his wife hovered and I occasionally caught him smiling.

After Dickson drove me home that evening and stopped the car, he said abruptly, “You’re not a loser, you know. You’re a winner.”

I was speechless. Where did that come from? Had Irany embellished the tale of my broken romance to convince Dickson (who never would have done so otherwise) to take me to this event?

If so, fine. I got to see a cool house and rub elbows with those who were usually just names in newspapers. Furthermore, I looked pretty good doing it.

As I was trying to come up with a reply, Dickson added, “You can’t live here with your parents.” His voice was firm, in the role of advisor. “You need to get your own apartment.”

Well, sure, that’s what I wanted, but it took funds I didn’t have.

According to the song Autumn Leaves all good things must end one day, they did. When our two-term Governor lost the election, most of us hired by him were replaced.

Irany, however, was like God when it came to contacts. He arranged an interview for me with the Alaska State School District’s Superintendent of Schools. There was zero demand for home economics teachers in the Anchorage School District, but a position with the State School Borough unexpectedly appeared at Elmendorf AFB when that teacher’s husband was transferred.

So there I was, a teacher, just what I had tried so hard to avoid.

My mother, a former teacher, was thrilled and Dad smiled and everyone said I was lucky to slide into a job so quickly. I tried, but quietly failed to see it that way.

Teaching seemed as far from design as studying cotton weaves. Now I’d become firm-mouthed, dictatorial and matronly– with a stomach. I’d get boringly practical, which meant giving up my pie-in-the-sky dreams.

There was another problem. I had spoken only once before a large group and, while preparing for that, I was almost suicidal with terror. Now I’d have to address (and control!) six classes of 30 to 40 kids each, every day, five days a week.

Oh hell, buck up, I finally said to myself.

At least now I could get an apartment.

 

 

The Hired Gun

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photos-biker-image20881453

There was a motorcycle gang in Anchorage named The Brothers in the early ‘70s.  Rumor had it that when one of them died the rest of them would cremate him, roll some of him into a marijuana joint and smoke him.  Now that’s taking brotherly love to an all new high.

In the early 1970’s someone in the gang got the bright idea of teaming up with the Hell’s Angels, so then we had The Brothers roaring around town in Hell’s Angels colors.  If they decided to visit your bar they would typically hang in a group and intimidate everyone else in the place, so at Chilkoot Charlie’s we banned the wearing of colors; in fact, in the end we banned all manner of motorcycle clothing, including Harley Davidson logos.  Ironically, during a period when a lot of people thought of Koot’s as a biker bar it was anything but.  The next bright idea the gang had was to sell “insurance” or “protection” to local bars and they began, logically enough with the topless clubs, where they also had plans to control the flow of female dancers into the state.  Jimmy Sumpter, an elderly gentleman who had already been to a rodeo or two, owned a couple of such clubs, one named the Sportsman Too in Muldoon and a larger operation a few miles out on the Old Seward Highway named the Kit Kat Club.

Jimmy Sumpter wasn’t in the market for “insurance” or “protection.”  He also didn’t harbor any desire for a gang of bikers to control the recruiting of his dancers.   I am unaware of anyone who actually paid the protection fee, and they never acquired control over the comings and goings of dancers, but there was no doubt that the gang took the whole proposition seriously.

Someone broke into Jimmy Sumpter’s house, reportedly stole $20,000 dollars and some jewelry, murdered his forty-year-old wife, Marguerite and his stepson, Richard Merck, and then set the house on fire. Richard’s sister, miraculously, was able to escape, returning after the attack to try to save her brother by climbing in a window, only to discover he had been shot to death.   I went to visit Jimmy at the Captain Cook Hotel, where he was living after the incident, and I can tell you first hand that the desire for revenge was palpable.  There wasn’t any doubt in Jimmy’s mind about who was responsible either.  Jimmy’s neighbor across the street had seen someone getting into his truck and careening away from the scene after the fire started and she had the presence of mind to write down the license plate number.  Police later matched it to that of Gary Zieger.

Gary Zieger was a pledge for the Hell’s Angels/Brothers motorcycle gang, but Gary was such a vicious and unpredictable murderer, that even the motorcycle gang was probably never going to allow him full membership.  No one will ever know exactly why Gary broke into the Sumpter house and committed the murders and it will never be known whether he did it on his own to impress the rest of the gang, whether he did it simply for the money or whether he did it at the behest of the gang.  The talk around town, though, was that Richard Merck’s father was in town from Fairbanks and he and Jimmy were going to take care of the twenty year-old-Zieger once and for all.  Jimmy put a reward on the street of $10,000 cash for information about the murderer of his family, but rumor had it that it was for anyone killing a member of the gang, so it might be assumed that the gang got rid of Zieger themselves in order to pacify Jimmy Sumpter.  I am not certain of this, but my recollection is that Zieger was in jail for something else and, though he was not at all excited about being let out, Sumpter actually paid his bail to get him released.  Whatever the case, within a matter of hours Zieger was found along the Seward Highway near Potter Marsh with a shotgun blast to his chest.  Jimmy had a perfect alibi for his whereabouts at the time, and the investigation was brief.  After all, why try to find out who had killed Zieger?   Few people cared.   Zieger was responsible for perhaps a dozen murders, including the rape and murder of several young women, though he had avoided being convicted, mostly because of the rudimentary state of DNA testing at the time, and he was also intimately involved in the kidnapping and murder of small-time gangster Johnny Rich.

Gary’s brother Rod asserts that Gary’s murder had nothing to do with the fire and murders at the Sumpter house or with Johnny Rich.  He believes Vern Rollins, recently deceased himself, did it.  According to Rod, when The Brothers broke into a construction site in Valdez to steal explosives, Gary got caught hauling them back to Anchorage and the gang was afraid he might turn on them.  He says Rollins killed him to collect $10,000 in reward money, but to the best of my knowledge, Vern Rollins was never a member of the gang or did their bidding for them.  I suppose it is possible that Vern took the opportunity when the gang distanced themselves from Gary.

Next, the gang tried to blow up PJ’s, a strip club on Spenard Road.  At that time, PJ’s had not occupied the entire building in which it was located; the northern half was a garage.  Hallie McGinnis, the owner, was working the bar one night when he smelled gasoline so he started looking around.  When he looked outside he saw a couple of guys ducking behind his dumpster and also glimpsed a plunger, and wires leading into the garage beside the bar.  He ran back inside and got his pistol but by the time he returned, two members of the gang, Indian and Gypsy, were jumping into a fleeing car on Spenard Road.  Hallie popped off a couple of shots at the car as it sped away, and called the cops.

One of the Hell’s Angels that had come to Alaska from California and become a member of the newly-minted gang had done a tour of duty in Vietnam and had experience with explosives, and the fashion in which the explosion of PJ’s had been arranged was obviously prepared by someone who knew what he was doing.  The plunger that Hallie found behind his dumpster was hooked up to some explosives—dynamite, I believe– stacked up against the storage shed side of the wall on the other side of which was a room full of late-night partiers.  Along with the explosives were two or three Jerry cans of gasoline.  If their activities had not been interrupted by Hallie and the plunger had been successfully attached and depressed the resultant explosion would have blown through the concrete wall, created a vacuum inside the crowded club into which the blazing gas would have been sucked, making a torch out of everything and everyone in there.  Indian and Gypsy were arrested at the Canadian border.

Chilkoot Charlie’s was a much smaller but very successful operation, so I wasn’t surprised when I received a delegation from the motorcycle gang.  I sat across from the South Long Bar at a table while gang member Bobby Baer tried to tempt me with their offer by suggesting that I was “very close to the other side.”  I knew that if I backed up one inch I was in deep do-do, so I looked Bobby in the eye and said if he was threatening me I had enough money set aside to bury every one of them.  I sent Tiffany, my wife at the time, to Seattle and stationed a guy on my rooftop with a sawed-off shotgun.  I didn’t go anywhere without my .38 revolver.  The gang decided to leave me alone though we had issues with the wearing of colors at the club and some minor skirmishes for a while.  One night when I had been pushed too far I stood out front of the bar waving my .38 around menacingly with the hammer back and one gang member, Happy Jack, shouted out that I was “fucking crazy,” so they left in a hurry.   I also had some friends on their side of the street, which I found to be a necessary strategy in those days.  All outlaws are not bad guys and some of them can come in pretty handy when the chips are down since the cops would, more times than not, show up to establish a crime scene rather than intervene in a timely fashion.

The east end of the South Long Bar used to be in those days referred to as “Loser’s Corner.”  The patrons inhabiting that corner knew about the guy on the roof with the sawed-off shotgun and, to make his lonely vigil less of an ordeal, started sending shots of tequila up to him.  As a result he got so drunk he walked off the east end of the building and fell into the dumpster, sawed-off shotgun and all.  Good help was hard to find.

It was in 1973 that Johnny Rich was murdered over a disagreement about the ownership of a massage parlor named Cindy’s.  Kim Rich writes sympathetically of her father in Johnny’s Girl.  The book is well written and a good read and the movie starring Treat Williams is worth seeing, but I knew Johnny and I can tell you he was nothing but a two-bit punk with an over-sized opinion of himself and fast-tracked ambitions that had him stepping over an honest dollar every day in favor of a dishonest dime.  My manager at Chilkoot Charlie’s, Dale Vaughn, and I were in PJ’s the night Johnny was celebrating his new ownership of Cindy’s, buying drinks and playing the big shot.  In the midst of the celebration I turned to Dale and said, “Somebody’s going to kill that stupid mutherfucker.”  Within a few days he had disappeared.  His body was eventually recovered from coal mine tailings north of Palmer.

After the murders and fire at Jimmy Sumpter’s house, Dale Vaughn was working at the Kit Kat Club as Jimmy’s manager.   I got word that Jimmy had imported a hired gun from the east coast to intervene on his behalf with the motorcycle gang.  One evening I called the Kit Kat Club, got Dale on the phone, and was informed the guy was out there holding court in the bar with the gang.  This, I wanted to see.  Dale said, “Bring your friend,” referring to my pistol, to which I replied, “No problem.”  At the time, there were several 20 gauge shotguns at intervals behind the Kit Kat Club bar.

Sure enough, upon arrival the guy from the east coast, big, younger than I had anticipated, wearing a plaid sports coat and playing it up as a tough guy, was sparring verbally with several members of the gang.  That night was my one and only face-to-face meeting with the hired gun.  It was brief, more like an introduction, and I don’t remember his name, but it might have been Tommy, which is close enough.

Six months to a year later my erstwhile acquaintance, Tommy, left a message on my phone for me to call him.  When I called he said, “I need a security job at Chilkoot Charlie’s.”  I replied that I had a full staff of security personnel already, to which Tommy replied, “I guess you didn’t hear me.  I said I need a fucking job.”  I hung up on him.  He called back and left me a nasty message adding that the next time he saw me I’d better be carrying.  I called Jimmy Sumpter, since he had already had dealings with Tommy, to ask if he had any suggestions on how I should handle him.  Jimmy thought for a moment and said, “I’d call Vern Rollins,” which is exactly what I did, Vern being one of the sort of outlaws that it didn’t hurt to know, and in order to thoroughly cover my ass, I called Anchorage Chief of Police, Brian Porter, a personal acquaintance.  Of course, I had Tommy’s phone number for Rollins and Chief Porter, so he soon had received a phone call from both sides of the street.  One suggested that if anything happened to me, the police, who happened to like me, knew who he was, where he was and that he had threatened me.  The other suggested that if anything happened to me, something was going to happen to him.  I never saw nor heard from Tommy again.

The Windmill

Windmill, © Mike Gordon

The Windmill, © Mike Gordon

In the early 1980s, when money was no problem and anything was possible, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse by none other than Mafia Mike, thus becoming the custodian of an important historical icon.  Had I known at the time what a maintenance nightmare it would become, I’m not sure I would have been willing to accept the responsibility, regardless of the possibilities—or consequences.

Byron Gillam stepped ashore in Seward in April, 1941.  Before a planned return to the States, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, liquor was banned, martial law was established and no one was allowed to leave the territory of Alaska.  After the war, Gillam made a stake of a little over $40,000 by diverting a ship bound for the Philippines with 8,800 cases of Hiram Walker aboard, selling the whiskey to the 3,000 men and 50 women of Valdez.  He put the entirety of his stake into purchasing the Nevada Bar, a Swedish bar on First Avenue in Fairbanks, happily discovering that there was $50,000 in inventory downstairs.

Having built a successful enterprise in Fairbanks, Gillam sold out to Larry Carr and moved his family to Anchorage in 1957, where he opened the Kut Rate Kid on East Fireweed Lane.  He was the bane of the liquor wholesalers, importing forty-foot trailer loads of beer and liquor directly to his store—bypassing the wholesalers—heavily discounting his prices to the public. He profited by selling a load of 5,000 cases of beer for two cents per case over his cost because his customers would buy a bottle of wine or liquor—properly marked up—or a bag of ice, 100% profit.  His landmark was a lighted windmill; the very same one that sits in the heart of Spenard at Spenard Road and 26th Avenue today.

In 1960 or 1961, Gillam was driving the freeway near Sacramento when he spotted a windmill, lit up, turning in the night, and had an epiphany.  Soon there was, at a cost of approximately $13,000 including installation, a beautiful new windmill on East Fireweed Lane.  Gillam advertized his Kut Rate Kid as, “Under the Windmill at Fireweed and Gamble.”  But not everyone liked the windmill.  Then, as now, there are those who don’t like outdoor advertizing, especially big, flashy stuff.  In the very early 1960s, a municipal ordinance was passed that prohibited commercial signs specifically targeting the windmill.  Byron responded with, “Where’s the advertisement?  Where’s the sign?  It’s not a sign; it’s a light.  Screw off!”

Byron’s son Bob, recently graduated from college, built a nice new facility further west on Fireweed Lane out of which the business was run until around 1978, Byron having passed away that year.  In 1980 the business and property was sold, and the new operator—not as adept at tracking those two-cent profits—failed; the property fell into bankruptcy, leaving the building and windmill sitting unattended for some time.  The Anchorage economy was booming though in the 1980s, fueled by the massive oil income from the newly-opened pipeline from Prudhoe Bay and Project 80s expenditures on infrastructure, so Mafia Mike, who owned a pizza operation, was expanding.

Mafia Mike was a local character, appearing in his own television ads sporting a black shirt and black fedora, even putting his name on the ballot for mayor of Anchorage, so the windmill, which he purchased out of bankruptcy, was a perfect fit for him.  He was all set to open another location in mid-town and planning to move his new windmill to the new location as his own landmark when Sheik Yamani opened the spigots in Saudi Arabia, sending the price of oil spiraling downward by over fifty percent.  That was the end of a lot of plans in Alaska and other oil-producing states, including Mafia Mike’s.  The only guy making any money until the Exxon Valdez oil clean-up efforts resurrected the moribund Alaskan economy was the guy with the U-Haul franchise.  People were just dropping off their house keys at Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, driving down the Alcan Highway in a flood, looking for work elsewhere—anywhere.

Because of the economic downturn, Mafia Mike cancelled his expansion plans and no longer had a location for his windmill, but the owners of the property still wanted it removed.  Mike asked around and, according to him, one person he talked to said, “Go see Mike Gordon.  He’ll buy anything,” which was not entirely off base because I had recently purchased a two-headed pig for Chilkoot Charlie’s.  Word gets around.  Mike really did make me an offer I couldn’t refuse, saying, “I’ll give you the windmill if you move it off the property, re-erect it at the southeast corner of your parking lot, and put a plaque on it saying that it was donated to Spenard by Mafia Mike.”  So it was done, at a cost of $10,000, but the plaque has long since disappeared.

The cost of moving and re-erecting the windmill was only the beginning.  Next, we discovered what we might have anticipated in Spenard—that there were loons who would want to climb the structure.  There is a scruffy variety of loon in Spenard, Gavia inebria, whose only similarity to the common loon found in Alaskan waters is its red eyes.  We had to build a six-foot fence around the structure topped off with barbed wire to protect the loons from themselves.  Those who aren’t interested in climbing the windmill still love it, many because its lights provide colorful targets at which to toss rocks.  Others, like the Spenard Saturday Market love it because of its iconic, homey presence under which they hold their event during the summer months.  The people who love the windmill the most, however, are the people who provide maintenance for it.  We’re talking job security here.  The time span during which all the lights are working on its support legs and the spokes are all completely lit up and turning over during the decades can be numbered by slowly counting to ten.  If all the support leg lights are working, then the neon lights on the spokes or tail are totally or partially out.  If, by some chance, all the lights are working, then the motor that turns the spokes has most likely died.  It’s a beautiful thing to gaze upon, however, during those fleeting moments when the whole thing is working.  It’s like witnessing a miracle.

Not long after the windmill was re-erected, we had a little celebration to which we invited the public to bring appropriate items to put into a 55 gallon time capsule we then placed in a hole we’d dug under it.  This story will serve as a reminder to future archeologists that the capsule is there.  I hope the contents prove to be interesting to future residents of Spenard in, say, 2050.

I recently had a conversation in the Swing Bar at Chilkoot Charlie’s with Bob Gillam, founder and president of McKinley Capital Management, LLC, a highly successful investment institution, first of its kind situated in Anchorage.  The family has property on Lake Clark and would like to install their old windmill there as a family keepsake, so I am currently investigating the cost of a metal replacement that would look enough like the original that no one in Spenard would be upset about the change.  Bob has agreed to pay reasonable expenses to make all this happen and I’m perfectly happy to accommodate him and his family.  It will be a win-win if they get the windmill they want for sentimental reasons and I get one that requires less maintenance, but if we consummate a deal, Bob should forthwith consider investing some of his McKinley Capital money in a sign maintenance company.

As the saying goes, Bob, “Be careful what you ask for.”

The Great Alaska Earthquake, 50 Years Later

Good Friday Earthquake at Turnagain Arm.  Compliments of Wikimedia Commons

Good Friday Earthquake at Turnagain Arm. Compliments of Wikimedia Commons

Half a century ago in south-central Alaska, the earth shook, and shook, rumbled, and undulated until it broke apart, large segments sliding into the waters of Cook Inlet in Anchorage, taking houses, cars, trees, and anything else on the land down with it.  Much of the rest of the world was put on tsunami watch.

What follows here is a compilation of memories from people directly affected by the event that has become known as The Great Alaska(n) Earthquake, The Good Friday Earthquake, the 1964 Alaska Earthquake, and, by many Alaskans, simply The Big One.

Every attempt has been made to retain the authentic voice of the writers as they vividly recall details from 50 years ago, experiencing the emotions all over again.  Some feelings stay with us forever.

 

In The Day the Earth Broke, JEANNE FOLLETT presents us with a detailed, dynamic description explaining the geological process that resulted in the destructive 9.2 earthquake with effects felt around the world:

 

The Day the Earth Broke

 

It is said that when disaster strikes, our brains process the information differently than usual. Rather than a fluid, coherent video of occurring events, we see disaster as a series of quick photographic stills. In recalling those images, they are viewed much like the small comic pages of sketched characters that, when the pages are ruffled, seem to be moving.

Good Friday, March 27, 1964, late afternoon.

Seventy-five miles from Anchorage, Alaska, in Prince William Sound, and eighteen miles deep, the earth’s crust had had enough. A massive plate of rock called the Pacific Plate had been pushing against the North American Plate for tens of thousands of years, moving between two and three inches a year. Unable to rise on top of the North American Plate, it was instead forcing its way under it, causing a fault line where the two plates fractured to allow the movement. The crust was compressed, folded, and warped, causing some surface areas to sink and others to be shoved upwards.

At 5:26 p.m., all hell broke loose.

But this wasn’t just another earthquake. This one wasn’t going to be content knocking jars of strawberry and raspberry jam off the shelves in the grocery store, making a fine mess for the stock boy to clean up. This quake had loftier ambitions. This quake was a killer on the loose.

With rock crushing against rock only eighteen miles deep, the energy released by these forces was the equivalent of detonating a billion TONS of TNT. For long minutes, the earth battled against itself, rupturing along a five hundred mile length, and shaking 50,000 square miles of the crust.

Waves of seismic energy roiled the surface of the earth in coastal south-central Alaska on the afternoon of Good Friday, March 27, 1964. Leafless trees lashed violently back and forth. Fourteen-story buildings—the tallest in Anchorage—swayed far enough for water to slosh out of toilets, while at the same time their concrete facades shattered and cracked. Drivers pulled off roads to check for flat tires, then found they couldn’t stand upright on the heaving ground.

Slabs of pre-cast concrete fell off multi-story buildings, crashing to the sidewalks below, flattening cars within their deadly reach. Windows broke, spewing shattered glass in all directions. Steel railroad rails twisted and corkscrewed.

As bad as things were on the surface of the earth, far more malevolent forces were at work beneath it. Along the western coast of Anchorage, from downtown along the northern rim of the city above Ship Creek and the railroad yards, south past Bootlegger’s Cove and West Chester Creek, past the Forest Park golf course and country club, and through the expensive homes of the well-to-do with grand views of Cook Inlet and the mountains across the gray silty waters, past the modern ranch-style homes in the planned subdivisions of Turnagain by the Sea and Susitna View, a little-known transformation was occurring, one that would wreak all kinds of havoc on the city and its residents.

Beneath the office buildings and homes, the ground is wet sandy soil and clay. To geologists and seismologists, it is known as the Bootlegger’s Cove formation. When movement is added to the mix, the sand, clay and water churn in an unstable form called liquefaction. It is not a substance on which buildings and homes and paved streets should be built.

Beneath the surface of Alaska’s seas, bays, fjords, inlets, and arms, huge masses of land shifted and sank, or thrust upwards, in some places as much as 30 feet.  Massive piles of rock, disturbed by the violence of the earth’s tectonic plates battling for supremacy, cascaded into undersea chasms, displacing water in prodigious amounts.

That water had to go somewhere.

To read all of Jeanne’s gripping personal experience, the following link takes you to her story published last year in Growing Up Anchorage: https://growingupanchorage.com/2013/03/rockin-and-rollin-alaskan-style/

 

JANA ARIANE NELSON was a young mother, living in a small trailer behind North Star Fuel, on the corner of the Old Seward Highway and Tudor Road.

When the roar of the earthquake cut off our electricity and everything started violently shaking, I picked up my children, Naomi, a year and a half, and David, 6 months, one under each arm and tried to stand in the porch doorway.   Since it was the day after my birthday, my husband and I had planned to go out that evening, and I was wearing a dress with a tight skirt and 3” heels.  It became obvious that we couldn’t stay where we were, so I walked down the few steps to the snow and ice covered parking lot that separated the small group of trailers from Kitty’s Café on the Seward Highway.

I promptly fell.  We were unhurt but the kids were screaming and a fissure was opening and closing beneath the trailers.  I got up somehow and walked all the way to the Café while the ground was still shaking.  I could see grown men hanging onto their cars on the side of the road and wondered why they wouldn’t come help me.  I guess adrenalin does amazing things since I weighed a little over 100 pounds and the kids in my arms totaled probably more than a quarter of that.

Once we were safely inside and someone could watch my children, I went back to the trailer and found that the fire had gone out in the oil heater.  I turned off the oil, and propane.  Fortunately I had been cooking pork chops in an electric frying pan and not on the gas range.  Everything was a complete mess and I collected clothes and baby supplies so we could go to my parents for a few days.

Read Jana’s complete story, previously posted here: https://growingupanchorage.com/2012/05/9-2-the-great-alaskan-earthquake/

 

MIKE HOPKINS says, It was fun to think about again as I sat here in Falcon Cove, OR, looking out at the ocean and thinking about the tsunami that everyone says will come someday.  I realized I was waiting for one back in 1964 that never came.

Before I bought this place about 20 years ago, I had a geologist survey the land.  He was my same age and still lives in the same house he did as a kid in a low area of Seaside. It was flooded up to the second floor from the tidal wave our Alaska earthquake sent his way, not ours. We had a big laugh at the irony of our connection.

In 1964, I was in my second year at Alaska Methodist University. We lived along Westchester Lagoon by Bootlegger’s Cove.  I had just gotten home from school to relax a bit before my family returned when the house began to pitch and roll. It emptied all the kitchen cabinets, first one side and then the other.  Then the contents were pitched back and forth from one end of the kitchen to the other.

I made it through the debris to the front door and hung on. The wild ride lasted about four minutes and then it stopped. Except for the debris, there was no real damage. Outside I could still see telephone poles flipping back like match sticks, otherwise everything seemed back to normal. I was used to earthquakes. This felt bigger than usual, but the extent of the damage wasn’t immediately obvious.

A school mate, Jackie Reese, lived about six blocks away, closer to the water, so I headed my usual way up N Street to the park strip that ran between 9th and 10th. Nothing seemed amiss until I was turning onto 10th and saw the new six story Four Seasons Apartment across the park laying almost flat on its side. It was such a shock that I nearly drove into an earthquake fissure that had opened across the road. This was way bigger than I had thought.  Jackie was OK. There was no one at the collapsed apartment as I made my way back to our house. Fortunately, it had not been quite finished and was unoccupied.

Our whole family was OK. We had no utilities, so we headed out to my dad’s office at the Defense Communication System on Elmendorf AFB. He still had electricity. Sometime during the night we all decided we just wanted to be home, so we headed back. A few blocks from home, at 15th and L Street (the road to Spenard) we were stopped by military personnel and told we could not go any further.

They were concerned about the possibility of tidal waves. My dad was a former Army officer but it did not seem to help. Finally, they agreed they could not keep us from going home.  For the rest of the night we slept in our own beds, taking turns at the front window watching for the tidal wave that never came. I remember our view of the Inlet was better than the day before. The land closer to the water had dropped.

The next morning a friend and I headed out early to survey the damage and see what we could do to help. The jumbled mess with very few people downtown created an eerie scene. We put on our ski helmets and poked around in back of the JC Penney building. The front had collapsed. We wanted to help but had no official capacity. It was dark and still inside.

Apparently, others had already made sure everyone was out so we headed to the residential Turnagain area along the Inlet behind the High School and across the Lagoon from where we lived. It was really scary. Much of the neighborhood had slid toward the Inlet and down several hundred feet. It was a jumble of mud and houses. It was also pretty well evacuated. We comforted a pet dog that came out of a house that had collapsed halfway down the hill but there was nothing much we could do.

I was struck with how calm and resilient people seemed to be. There was no panic. I don’t remember any rash of looting that you might expect elsewhere in a city. By that evening we had a house full of kids again. They were my sister’s friends; most of whom I assume had fared worse than we had.

Now that I think about it, they were all boys and were usually there most nights before the earthquake as well. Maybe it had more to do with my sister. I like to think it was an Alaska thing. In Alaska, especially in the bush, and now in the city as well, everyone was always welcome to come in out of the cold. No one had to take anything. We all shared what we had.

It would be hard to say that things got back to normal soon but we learned to live with it. The aftershocks were frequent and as severe as most earthquakes anyone will ever experience. We soon began to sleep through them at night rather than jump up and run for cover. After all, when everything was shaking, where could you go?

 

GEORGIA GUSTAFSON

The evening before the quake I went to see Anchorage Community Theatre’s production of “Our Town” at Gould Hall on the AMU campus.  Photos show the play’s advertising banner over a crumbly 4th Ave and environs.

On the half-century anniversary of earthquake evening this year, we’re attending a fund-raiser for Anchorage Community Theatre, featuring highlights from their productions over the past 50 years.  The folks who hold the rights to “Our Town” wouldn’t authorize a small selection to be extracted and performed, saying it must be the whole production, or nothing.  Even so, that should be a fun evening.  I even remember the general location where I sat in the audience 50 years ago.

Oh, yes…I’ll precede the evening event by skiing all day at Alyeska, where I was in 1964.  Who’d ever have thought….?!

Yes, I know we gathered for dinner with your folks, Jana.  The two households pooled the dinner-makings.  But I can’t remember if your folks came down to our house, or we went up to yours.  I keep searching the recesses of my brain….

 

SUE NORRIS HAMILTON, AHS 1961, went by Sue Hamilton at AMU 1961-1965 – memories of the ’64 quake:

I was in the dorm (2nd floor) at AMU that afternoon, resting up for our evening performance of “Our Town.”  When I realized this wasn’t a “normal” quake, I threw some clothes on and headed for the stairs, stopping next door to yell at Robin to leave her tape recorder and come on!

We staggered down the stairs, clinging to the railings to keep from losing our footing and being flung down the stairs head first.  We made it out the door and stood on the grass lawn watching 30- and 40-foot trees whipping from side to side, the tops touching the ground and snapping back to the other side.  Then, we stood, waiting for the ground swells to roll toward us so we could jump over them as they rolled on by.  We were really more excited than scared until it became clear just how serious it really was.  Lance Petersen, my beau at the time, had been downtown and came back to tell us that he had seen the destruction there, including JC Penny’s front facade on the ground.

The next several hours and days were very stressful and busy.  AMU was a designated shelter and our dorm housed several people evacuated from Turnagain.  The very next day I went to the main building and up to the library to see the damage.  We had spent spring break completely cataloging the shelves.  The books were now all on the floor in piles!  By the time classes opened again in a week, the library was back up and running fully, thanks to many volunteers.

The other thing that affected me most due to the quake was that the next month, on April 26, the Governor and his people wanted to review the total damage done in Valdez so the Air Guard flew them to Valdez that afternoon.  My dad, Lt.  Col. Tom Norris, Sr., was the pilot.

After dropping the Governor and his people off, the flight crew refueled and started the return flight to Anchorage.  They didn’t make it!  The plane went down into the bay shortly after takeoff.   Along with my father, we lost the Com. General of the AK National Guard, the copilot, and the engineer.  All together there were 21 children orphaned by that crash and I was the oldest at 20. So the State of Alaska lost some really great men that day.

 

DOREEN DUNNIGAN DONALD

I was married and lived out on Campbell Airstrip Road with a one-year-old daughter.   I had just come home from work when the ground started rumbling.  The noise was very eerie up against the mountains.

We just grabbed things in hopes of less damage and the worst was the pot of beans cooking on the stove.  We had beans everywhere for a while.  My parents and sister and her family all lived in Spenard.  My sister’s house was just a couple blocks from the Turnagain area that slid into Cook Inlet, so she really “rode the waves” of the quake.

They all came out to our home near the mountains when they could gather up.  We had water and a generator and could function.  My husband had a home construction business and had just finished a home across KFQD Road (now Northern Lights Blvd) from what is now Earthquake Park.  The home was not damaged but, because the land in that area was deemed unstable, we could not sell it.  So “out of state” geologists that came to Anchorage to survey land and damage, rented the “unsafe” home for a year before declaring the area safe!

The most dramatic images we captured were at commercial construction sites around town:  JC Penney’s Department Store where the front wall panels fell on cars and the street around the building; the new construction of Alaska Sales and Service; the multi-story apartment building behind the old Providence Hospital that collapsed down to about one story of debris; West High School damage of the second floor that left it a one-story building; and the whole east end of 4th Avenue where the businesses became “basements.”

I worked for National Bank of Alaska and managed the Airport Branch.  I had left work before the control tower was totaled and some of the airport businesses were damaged.  Years later, my husband built the new control tower, still in use now.

I moved into the Spenard Branch of the bank for a short time after the quake.  The week after the BIG shake, we experienced another large quake.   I was selling travelers checks to a customer who was “getting the heck out of Alaska” when the shaking started.   He ran out the front door and I, along with the other employees, ran out the back door.  I stood next to my boss, saying, “I sure hope the guy comes back.  He had the Travelers Checks and I had NO money.”

When we all went back inside, he was there.  I thanked him and told him he was smart to get out NOW!

Those are just a few of the many old stories I tell when people find out we lived thru the BIG ONE!  It is the one experience that people our age know about and always ask when they find out we lived in Anchorage for 40-plus years.

 

KATHLEEN DUNNE WILSON

On Good Friday morning of 1964 I was dressing my 9 month old daughter while my husband debated what to do with his day off.  While I gave our apartment a thorough spring cleaning, he decided to go to JC Penny’s first to buy slacks.  Next he came home to soak in the tub a good long while before playing with the baby until they both fell asleep and I moved her to her crib.

If he’d been in Penney’s at the time of the quake, where the slabs fell off the sides of the building, or in a filled bathtub, the outcome may have been much different and I could have been alone with our infant.

As it was, I spent the day cleaning the bathroom, bedroom and kitchen and all the windows before I mopped and waxed myself into a corner to read a paperback Agatha Christie murder mystery while the floors dried.  Frank had just bought a full 36 piece set of glassware.  Since we had no room in the cupboards, he had lined them up along the top of the kitchen cabinets.

I looked up when I heard those glasses moving against each other in time to see the cupboard doors opening and the wall opposite me appear to be coming at me.  Our baby began screaming as the print of a guardian angel fell on her and I tried to cross over the buckling floor.

Our apartment was one of two on the second floor of an old building on Thompson Street and my first thought was that the old building was collapsing.  The building was built many years before by Elmo Strain who had made us promise not to do anything to upgrade or change anything.  I thought this was because doing anything to the ancient building might make it fall down.

Now, I grabbed the baby and wobbled across the even wobblier floor.   Out the window, I saw the tops of the trees in the forest across the street hitting the ground and then bending all the way over to hit the ground in the opposite direction!  It was so unbelievable my mind could not comprehend what was happening and I froze.

My husband was pushing us from behind, out the door, to the top of the stairs.  Then he grabbed the baby when I hesitated to jump.  The stairs were rocking and rolling and wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to find purchase and I could see the fire extinguisher had come off the wall and was bouncing all over the stairs.  Finally, Frank pushed me and I tumbled all the way down where he picked me up and got us into our car.

The car was swaying back and forth.  We just looked at each other, grateful that we’d made it to the car.  We noticed the couple who lived in the apartment next to us were alongside us in their swaying car.  And then it stopped…we couldn’t move…I really don’t think the word “earthquake” had yet even crossed our minds.  We were in shock!

We stayed in the car until my father’s car came squealing and screeching alongside.  He’d rushed to make sure we were okay.  He’d been working construction, building the new Travel Lodge on Third Avenue and told us the partial chimney had fallen on a coworker’s legs.

We all went upstairs to find that the apartment was a disaster.   Everything in the kitchen had fallen, mingled on the linoleum floor….a mixture of Crisco, maple syrup and pickles with everything else from cupboards and fridge.  And we had no water!  Dad took us to his house where we stayed during the next week.  The neighbors moved in also and we all slept next to each other on the floor for several days until utilities were restored.

Mom had a big freezer that she’d recently filled with a brand new product of the day: packages of frozen loaves of bread.  We ate so much bread it came out of our ears and everyone shared an earthquake story.  My husband’s best friend lived on a high floor of the Mt .McKinley building.  When he and his wife made it out to the parking lot, he grabbed a light pole and hung on.  He refused to ever return to his apartment.  Shortly thereafter they moved to Arkansas, where he said everything was on the first floor!

I worked in the State Courthouse on 4th Avenue.  A long crack ran diagonally through the building after the quake.  Our offices kept coat racks with empty hangars on them and if those hangars started rattling we immediately evacuated the building.  When I had jury duty, we all swapped quake tales in the long hours of waiting to be assigned to courtrooms….and prayed we’d never have to experience another one as momentous as the Good Friday Earthquake of ‘64.

I remember one other thing.  We had a friend who bragged that you could bluff your way into any situation if you looked like you belonged there.  After the earthquake everyone heard through the radio that we were not to go out on the streets unless for official reasons.  He took a clipboard and walked all around Anchorage and was never stopped.  It turned out many of the pictures he took were used by the media.  And we never heard the end of it!

 

TOM NORTON

I was talking on the phone with Roy, who lived a little more than a mile from us when it happened: the Great Alaska EARTHQUAKE.

I said to Roy, “Oh a little quake” and he said, “I’ll call you back.”

Then it struck big at our house, a few seconds after hitting Roy’s.  I went outside to see what had happened.  Several others also exited their houses, but no one said a word.  There was nothing to say, no words to express.  Everything was completely silent; birds didn’t sing, dogs didn’t bark.  One dog stood motionless, stunned, with his tail between his legs.  It was a stillness that I had never heard!  Even the electricity, in the telephone wires, was silent.

I went back inside.  Stunned like the dog with his tail between his legs, I controlled everything, doing what needed to be done.  We did have house damage but it was minor compared to others.

We lived close to the Inlet not far from West Anchorage High School, which is now only one floor instead of two, and knew how dangerous it could be if a strong earthquake struck.  I knew Anchorage was built on the ancient glacial silt deposit known as Bootlegger Cove clay.

The primary tremors are weak trembling movements, causing little or no damage; the secondary quakes have strong jerking, jolting effects, which cause furniture and other household items to be displaced or destroyed and might cause minor structural ruin; the third movement is like the ocean swelling with waves maybe 50 feet or so and then sinking.  This causes serious structural damage, destroying highways, buildings and even towns.  Valdez was destroyed by the tsunami that followed.

Generally earthquakes last considerably less than a minute.  This quake lasted between 4 and 4½ minutes.  A very strong earthquake measures about 8 on the Richter scale, but this one scaled 9.2, the second strongest ever recorded, the strongest being in Chile, May 22, 1960, logged at 9.5!  For more information on  the Richter Scale, see http://www.geo.mtu.edu/UPSeis/intensity.html

After one minute I thought it would soon come to an end, but instead it continually got worse and worse and worse and worse, feeling all three waves!  The roar was like a freight train thundering by.  After about three minutes of unimaginable ocean waves on land, I began to wonder if I would slide into the inlet on this Bootlegger Cove clay and disappear like many Romans did 2000 years ago in Pompeii as Vesuvius engulfed them.

Some of the Turnagain area was swept into the Inlet.  This was unfortunate for a particular insurance company, which had to pay for a sports car destroyed in the Big One, even though that person had no earthquake insurance.  He told the insurance company a house fell on his car, which was the truth.  The cover of Life Magazine’s April 1964 issue shows the picture of his sports car under the bathroom of a house.  This home belonged to one of my father’s teachers. [ed note: Tom’s father was Glenn Norton, principal of North Star Elementary School]

At the dinner table, looking out their picture window and enjoying supper, they saw their neighbor’s house slide toward the Inlet and within seconds their house followed!

A friend of mine was driving in the Anchorage city limits and abruptly determined he had a flat tire.  As he started to turn off the road he looked into his rear view mirror and saw the car behind him suddenly sink out of sight into a fissure.  Then he realized he did not have a flat tire!

Finally, I feared failing a physiology class following the Quake.  The morning after, I went to AMU to check my diabetes experiment and discovered both mice, the control specimen and the injected one, had died.  Even though my experiment was incomplete the Professor gave me a better than acceptable mark!

I will never forget this once in a life time tragedy.  There are no descriptions to define what happened on that day fifty years ago.  This experience was so overwhelming, that one has to realize the power of nature and how helpless the human race is when confronted by such supreme forces and unknowns.

 

LEAH HOFFMAN

March 27, 1964, was like any crisp cool Alaskan day at this time of year.  It was Good Friday, so people were hustling about getting ready for Easter dinner and the Easter bunny because it was a day off from work.

My roommate Margo Cook and I had been to the market and purchased groceries for guests that would be coming for Easter dinner.  By this time, we were tired and ready to get back to our apartment at 1200 “L,” a 14-story structure now called Inlet Towers.

As we entered the building, there was a sudden boom and a shaking!  Of course, we waited a minute before getting on the elevator when the shaking continued.  By this time, we knew it was an earthquake and stayed off the elevator.

People were running outside and screaming.  Being good California earthquake-trained gals, we went to the doors, arms full of sacks and boxes of groceries, and stood there.

By this time, the place was shaking pretty hard.  We could look out the door and see the ground waves that came from two directions, coming together, colliding.  That’s when the bad shaking occurred, making the cars in the parking lot shake up and down.

The floor began separating from the entrance and we no longer straddled it.  After what seemed an eternity, the shaking stopped.  We went to the car and put the groceries in it. Another teacher friend living in the apartment house joined us.

We didn’t know it was as bad as it was and drove to check on a friend down by the Inlet.  She was panicked!  Her place was a mess.  Her son was on his way home from skiing at Alyeska and her husband worked in town.

We picked a few things up from the floor to clean up until we realized it was hopeless.  Syrups, catsup, food were all mixed together with glass and other debris.

Terry Mondhan, a local shoe salesman and neighbor, joined us.  By now our friend’s husband and son were home.

As we contemplated what to do, a radio announcer came by with a loudspeaker on her car, telling us a tsunami was coming and to get out.  The family jumped into their car and we jumped into ours.  Their car wouldn’t start, so all seven of us, plus one big dog, water, and cans of soda piled into my Nash Rambler.  I drove with a dog slurping down my back and a couple good-sized people sitting next to me.

We headed east toward the mountains, directed by the National Guard and other military.  Some roads were impassable, so they were at nearly every corner.

I taught at Lake Otis Elementary School and remembered Charley Jett’s family who had recently moved out of their old house and into a new one.  Their new house was across the street from Lake Otis School, so we went there.  The house was all lit up, since Charley, a local banker, was always ready for the weather with generators.  I knew the family because their son was in my class at school.

They invited us in.  After a delicious turkey dinner, they took us to the vacant house, intact although without heat or electricity.  East Anchorage wasn’t hit as hard as West Anchorage since the ground there was mostly solid rock and not clay.

The adventures began as we tried to notify our families in the “lower 48” that we were okay.  Communication lines were down, making this impossible, so we searched for other friends in Anchorage.

We had a radio that told us the tsunami had subsided and to stay put wherever we were because there was much damage and roads were not good.  We learned that for ourselves the next day when we tried to go downtown.

There was no water or heat in the vacant house.  We found a lamp with a wick and the Jetts had set us up with a cot, blankets, and other supplies.  Eventually, the electric company arrived and gave us both light and heat.  We had plenty of food in the trunk of the car.  It had been cold enough to keep it from spoiling.

Soon other friends joined us with their little dog.  We had food, a place to stay, and were able to let our families “Outside” know we were all right.

Our apartment house was blocked by the National Guard with guns at the ready.  They wouldn’t even let us go back to get sleeping bags or warm clothing.

As you can imagine, there are more adventures, but I’m to keep this short.  I told you the human interest more than the actual earthquake and after quakes to let you know what some of us did when we couldn’t go back to our homes.

 

********************

 

Even though some of us weren’t in Alaska when the Quake hit, we still remember exactly where we were and have vivid memories surrounding it:

 

DAN RIKER

When the earthquake hit, I was lucky enough to be in Seattle, working as a Field Engineer for IBM.  Family communications had been strained for a while; hence I didn’t know Mom was in the hospital.

Just prior to the earthquake, Don Chin (of Don’s Green Apple) came to visit her.  Shortly after he got out of the hospital elevator, the earthquake hit, and the elevator fell several stories, but Don was spared.  On the South side of 5th Avenue, Mom’s partner and bookkeeper was sitting in her car. When the shaking started, a concrete slab, a façade on the face of JC Penney’s, fell.  Alice was not spared.

Several years earlier Mom retired from dancing.  She had worked as an entertainer at the Last Chance Club since 1954, saving enough money to open a club of her own.  It was the Hanger Bar and Sky Lounge, located on the corner of 4th and C streets.  Business there was good.  A few years later she moved “up town,” near the Federal Building, and opened another club called the Memo Pad.  It was a small but profitable place that fostered dreams of something bigger and better.

Construction was almost complete.  The new business was to be a dinner club, located on 4th Avenue, directly across the street from the Captain Cook Hotel.  This was the realization of a decade old dream, which took Mom from dancing on East 5th Avenue, to a respected business owner.

Opening was less than a month away.  Building funds had come from the sale of the Memo Pad, delaying payments of bills, and literally “hawking the family jewels.”  Everything Mom had was tied up in this dream.

At 5:36 pm on the 27th of March, 1964, that dream ended.

 

DALE SELLIN

Even these days, it happens: “You were raised in Anchorage? Were you living there during the Great Earthquake?”

I never lie about it. “Yes, but I missed it.” Thankfully.

Yet that’s a story too. Dad (who by then lived with Mom in Tacoma) and I were enjoying my spring break from AMU on a lark to Washington, DC.

That Saturday morning after Good Friday 1964, we ambled down to the lobby of the old Willard Hotel and located the restaurant. Newspapers stacked by the entrance trumpeted the unbelievable headline ”Anchorage Destroyed by Quake.”

Suspecting a practical joke, I picked up the first newspaper in order to examine the front page of the second paper in the stack. Same thing. Third one, ditto. This was no joke.

Immediately and repeatedly we tried to call Anchorage and only received busy signals.

A raft of inflammatory articles in the papers at breakfast got us plenty worked up, but since we could do little except worry, we elected to continue our sightseeing.  Mt. Vernon was memorable.

Sunday morning, on schedule, we prepared to return to Seattle/Tacoma and Anchorage.  Reconfirming, we were pleased to discover that the flight was direct to Anchorage via Sea-Tac.

At Dulles International Airport, when we approached the bus for the plane (the regular routine), we were surprised to see dozens of press people with all their paraphernalia crowded aboard.  Like us, they were headed for Anchorage. Only then were we confronted by the real enormity of the disaster in Alaska.

My plane was the first civilian aircraft to land at Anchorage International since Friday afternoon.  The runway, though seemingly intact, was a roller coaster. Of course, the place was a shambles, starting with the obvious: the tower had buckled to the ground.

There were no taxis or other transportation. I grabbed my suitcase and walked to Spenard, gawking at the damage.  Already, as I recall, over-the-ground water pipes had begun to appear, courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers, for whose action and organization we all should be eternally grateful.

Someone drove me to my AMU dorm in Gould Hall. It still stood! But books and the stereo from my bricks-and-boards bookcase littered the floor, now disfigured with tiles broken by falling bricks. Seeing no other damage, I reconnoitered the general area, and learned that, since there was no water, we could tap the huge drums of CD water stored in the daylight basement of the building. You know — the Civil Defense bomb shelter.

Alaska had been hit by another kind of bomb, this one without radiation but instead a most scurrilous demon: a tsunami. Several in fact, but not in Cook Inlet, thankfully.

Here, we survived. The ensuing days brought unique requests of students and citizens generally. I recall going out to KFQD radio station to answer phones from worried families one night – all night. Later, a group of us was asked to drive out to Turnagain to help homeowners retrieve their furniture and appliances from tilted houses, destined for the landfill. We did our part.

 

GINGER HARRIS METCALF

I was driving from San Francisco to Seattle when the quake hit.  In those days, communication with friends in Anchorage was not as easy as it is today so there were many days of not knowing of their safety following the quake.

 

LOUIS GARCIA

On the day of the 1964 earthquake, I was studying for one of my exams at the University of Montana in Missoula.

All of a sudden, I felt the room shake but only for a moment.  A few hours later I heard on the radio about the grave damage an earthquake had caused in Alaska.  It was a moment I will always remember with much sadness.

My years at Anchorage High School (1954-58) were rewarding, joyful, and exciting.  They will be meaningful treasures in my life forever.

 

GENE BROWN

At the time the Great Alaska Earthquake struck, I was serving in the US Navy as lead trumpet for the Commander Seventh Fleet band.  On a month’s leave in preparation for my rotation to the Seattle band, my fiancée and I were visiting her parents in Niihama, on the island of Shikoku, Japan.

We learned about the quake on the news.

My fiancée’s parents owned the first color television in Niihama.  They kept it at their restaurant where everybody who was anybody came to watch this wonderful, new invention.  Naturally, my future in-laws told the ever-changing collection of restaurant patrons and family visitors that the family of their daughter’s fiancé still resided in
Anchorage.

Although I did not understand enough Japanese at the time to make out all that these gracious folks said to me, I knew full well what the deep bows and expressions of condolence were all about.  I greatly appreciated their kindness toward an American during this time of uncertainty for me.

The quake news gave rise to a lively conversation among family and friends gathered in that small sushi restaurant about the effect such a tremor would have on the city of Niihama.  Their lovely town is a main port on the Inland Sea of Japan, sometimes called the Asian Mediterranean.  An earthquake the size of the one in Alaska would cause a tidal wave that could easily destroy Niihama.

In early April I returned to my base in Yokosuka and read the “Earthquake Edition” of the Anchorage Daily Times [called the Anchorage Times after 1976], with its many pages of photographs, that my mother had sent to me.  As reassured as I felt to know all of my family had survived intact, that newspaper enabled me to sense fully the amount of destruction to my hometown.

The April 2011 earthquake and tidal wave at Fukushima caused Japan to suffer the very level and kind of devastation we had discussed 47 years earlier.

 

MARY JO COMINS

Easter week-end 1964: my parents and sister had come to Missoula where I was attending the University of Montana.  My grandparents and an aunt and uncle also lived in Missoula where my dad had grown up.

Good Friday evening after dinner at my Aunt Donna and Uncle Glenn’s house, my parents, sister, and I were playing a board game at one end of the living room.  Glenn and Donna were gathered around the television at the other end while their two girls busied themselves in their bedroom.

“Hey!” said Glenn suddenly, “Earthquake in Alaska!”

My dad was facing away from the television, intent on the game.  He raised his left arm and said, “Yeah, yeah.  We have them all the time.  Whose move is it?”

Glenn sounded a little concerned.  “You might want to take a look at this.”

My dad sighed and rose from his chair.  “Do they always make such a big deal of it?” he asked as he walked toward the little screen.

Thus ended the board game (whatever it was) and pretty much of everything else for the next 36 hours as Dad tried every avenue he could think of to get information to or from Anchorage.  This mild-mannered man was nearly frantic with worried frustration at not knowing first-hand the extent of the damage and how he could help.  I had never seen him in such a state.

As a pilot with Pacific Northern Airlines, he called Northwest Airlines in Missoula seeking jump seat authorization for a flight back to Anchorage, only to be told there were no flights into or out of Anchorage.

“That isn’t possible,” he muttered, dialing the number of a local friend with the FAA who told him the Anchorage control tower was down and the runways ruined.

By Sunday my parents and sister were able to return home.  Besides food, dishes, and household goods tossed wildly about, our house on Lord Baranof Blvd had only sustained cracks in two of the cement block basement walls.  To reach the house, however, they had to take a detour through the Turnagain neighborhood due to a wide fissure across Lord Baranof between KFQD Road (now Northern Lights Blvd) and our house, which was, incidentally, two blocks closer to Cook Inlet.

It was mid-October of that year before I saw more than pictures of the earthquake damage.  Ten days before the Quake, I had been hired to work for the Alaska Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  When the school year ended, I piled my belongings into a friend’s little white sedan with two other friends and rode for three days and nights, sharing driving duties, from Missoula to their various homes on the east coast.  I was the last one dropped off in Flushing on Long Island.

When I returned to Anchorage after the Fair ended, I had been away for 10 months.  Our basement was whole again.  The fissure on Lord Baranof had been so well repaired that someone had to point out where it had been.  The changes downtown and around Anchorage seemed surreal.  I could scarcely remember what JC Penny’s had looked like before the quake.  I did miss having a tuna sandwich and lemon coke at Hewitt’s Drug Store, though.

 

********************

Administrator’s Note from Jana:

 

A special thanks to all who contributed memories for this story and to

MaryJo, who put it all together!

 

Watch for a post on Good Friday, April 18, 2014 of additional memories.

 

Ruby Rokeberg

Ruby & Mel Rokeberg, © Norman Rokeberg

Ruby & Mel Rokeberg, early 1930’s. © Norman Rokeberg

Looking out the living room window of our duplex on Iliamna Drive I couldn’t have missed Ruby on her hands and knees furiously yanking from the flower bed my newly transplanted flowers.  We were new to Alaska, having lived our first year on Government Hill and new to the neighborhood, Susitna View Park, just west of Turnagain-By-the-Sea subdivision, where Mel and Ruby lived.  Their son, Norman, and I had become friends.  The year was 1954.

Though we had raised chickens and rabbits and had planted a vegetable garden in Florida, there were no horticulturists in my family, and no knowledge of Alaskan flora.  My dad and I had hauled shale rocks from along the Seward Highway, surrounded a small stand of birch in our front yard, and backfilled it with topsoil.  I was assigned the task of providing the plants for the new flower garden, so I dutifully went into the woods nearby and dug up a number of fireweed, lupine and perhaps a stray delphinium or blue bell, the latter two of which would probably have been acceptable.  The former two, especially fireweed, by any Alaskan’s definition are weeds, regardless of their beauty in the wild.

The weeds were being yanked out of the earth and replaced with pansies and assorted domesticated flowering plants.  It was a kindly gesture in spite of its abrupt and pugnacious appearance, and we took it at face value—a seasoned Alaskan’s introduction to Alaskan Gardening 101.  The job being completed, Ruby said something to me like, “What are you trying to do, kid, ruin the neighborhood?”  She was noticeably worked up about the matter.

As a friend of Norm’s I had plenty occasions to visit the Rokeberg home, in fact, myself and other friends in the neighborhood, including Johnnie Tegstrom and Vaughn Cartwright, found any occasion an opportunity not to be passed up.  Ruby, as well as being a knowledgeable gardener, was also of Danish extraction so, of course, she knew how to make Danish pastries.  Her husband, Mel, was also Scandinavian–but Norwegian–an electrical foreman who worked on large construction projects all over Alaska.  Mel was born in Minnesota, grew up in Norway and worked hard to Americanize his speech, but he had a problem with pronouncing the letter “J” like most Norwegians.  There were a number of Norske’ among Anchorage’s founding fathers, hence the absence, in the alphabetically arranged streets,  of a “J” Street downtown between “I” and “K.”

Being Danish, Ruby, of course, also knew how to make Danish pastries, and before our legions of bureaucrats had set up shop and begun to force-feed us a mind-boggling array of regulations–all of course for our own good–a person could prepare food in their own kitchen for commercial purposes, which Ruby did.  She made Danish pastries and cookies in her kitchen that were served to passengers on Pacific Northern Airlines (later Western Airlines and then Delta Airlines) flights.  Most of the pastries Ruby made for Pacific Northern Airlines were of exceptional quality and appearance, but a small percentage of them were rejects.  They might not have been good enough to sell to the airlines, but they were good enough for Norm, Johnnie, Vaughn and me, so we were regular visitors to the household, sort of like Pavlov’s dogs, only we didn’t have to hear the bell.  We liked Norm too, but the pastries and cookies were the main attractions.

Ruby also baked the dessert tray of French and Danish pastries for the Garden of Eatin’, Anchorage’s leading restaurant in the 1950s and 1960s.  The fact that the city’s finest restaurant was located in a Quonset hut in Spenard speaks volumes about the era.  Lilla and I lived in a Quonset hut in Muldoon for a year after returning to Alaska in 1967.  For those who are unsure what a Quonset hut is; it was a ubiquitous Alaskan structure in Anchorage and elsewhere for at least twenty-five years after WW II.  The United States Navy needed a lightweight building that could be shipped anywhere and assembled with unskilled labor.  They were constructed of corrugated galvanized steel with a semicircular cross-section and could be erected on concrete or pilings, or just put right on the ground with a wooden floor.  The name derives from the site of first manufacture, which was Quonset Point, at a Navy construction center in North Kingston, Rhode Island.

I remember one summer when I was probably still attending what we used to call junior high (today’s middle school) at Central Junior High, since razed to accommodate the Performing Arts Center, when Ruby took Norm, me, and Roger Harman, on a fishing trip to Hope, Alaska.  We drove to Hope in the Rokeberg’s burgundy, 1950, Mercury.  Before the earthquake of 1964, there was a general store in Hope run by an elderly gentleman and he had everything under the sun in that place, stacked all the way up to the ceiling on either side of the several aisles, one of the many unique things missing after the quake that helped to define pre-earthquake Alaska from post-earthquake Alaska.  But, it was still there years later, when my family and I used to spend summers in Hope camped along Resurrection Creek, my mother panning for gold while my dad and I, and others caught fish.

Growing up in Alaska in the 1950s I didn’t know a single person who fly-fished or practiced catch-and-release.  We were harvesters and that’s the way I was raised.  My idea of a fly was a chunk of lead with a big treble hook attached.  We had a crawl space in our house on Iliamna Drive and the ground was a pretty good quality of sand.  I would take a Coleman burner down there, some wire, treble hooks, pieces of lead from wherever I could scrounge them and cut about a foot of the end of a broom or mop handle off.  I’d melt the lead in a pan over the Coleman burner, wet the sand, poking the end of the handle an inch or two into it to make a mould.  Then I’d pour the hot lead in, immediately inserting a twisted piece of coat hanger, sinking it in up to the eye with a pair of pliers.  After it cooled the chunk of lead would be tied to the underside of a treble hook and I was good to go.

We had a grand time camping and snagging Humpies, but the return trip turned into a real adventure because the highway was washed out just beyond Indian.  The road had been replaced by a torrential, brown, debris-filled stream, so we were stuck on the other side and there was nothing we could do but improvise until the road crews were able to make suitable repairs.  There was log cabin on nearby Indian Creek, owned by a friend of Ruby and Mel’s who worked for the railroad, so we didn’t have to sleep in the car.  We had plenty of fresh-caught fish to eat, a roof over our heads and a deck of cards, so it was a delightful sojourn.  The fish we couldn’t eat didn’t fare so well due to a shortage of ice, resulting in a bumper crop of potatoes that year from the Humpy fertilizer.

Rokeberg Family, © Norman Rokeberg

Rokeberg Family, © Norman Rokeberg

Ruby doted on us kids, took an interest in what we were doing and did things with us.  She was a sweetheart, though she was a little hard on Norman, who never seemed to be able to live up to her expectations.  Ruby and Mel had lost their first son to polio.  He was a senior in high school at the time of his death, seven years older than Norm, among the last polio deaths in Alaska, because the Salk vaccine was released a year later.  Ruby was never the same after the loss.  Donnie had been exemplary—the perfect son.  He hung up his clothes, whereas Norman was intransigent and a bit of a challenge and did not hang up his clothes, or put them in the hamper.  Ruby couldn’t help spoiling him because of the loss of her eldest son, but she also couldn’t help nagging at him.  He might have made it easier on himself had he kept his room more tidy, but he wasn’t so inclined and it was a regular flash point with Ruby, who cured the problem by refusing to wash his clothes until some were hung up and others found their way to the hamper.

Scouting was one activity that Norm and Johnnie and I became totally immersed in and committed to, all three achieving the rank of Eagle Scout.  My dad, an Eagle Scout himself, was involved in the program as a member of the merit badge completion committee.  Territorial Alaska was a perfect place for scouting activities.  We didn’t take hikes or camp in a park; we did it in the authentic wilds.  When we had a Winter Survival, it was the real deal.  I remember once when a group of a dozen or so of us went on an overnight hike into Wolverine Lake and lost the trail on the way out.  By the time we found the main road by following the stream flowing from the lake, where there was no trail and we had to “bushwack” our way, we were many hours late and the National Guard had been alerted.  One of the highlights of my scouting years is that the Black Panther Patrol, of which I was the patrol leader, was awarded the coveted Presidential Award for having the best campsite throughout the course of a Summer Camporee.  Ruby made our patrol flag—a black panther on a field of red.  I never got to attend a National Jamboree, but Mel and Ruby made sure that Norman got to attend one at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.  I was envious.

Our Boy Scout Troop 673, was sponsored by the Spenard Lions Club and we met in the North Star Elementary School until homesteader Chet Lampert allowed the club to put a Quonset hut on his property on the north shoreline of Blueberry Lake—now the northeast corner of Northern Lights Blvd. and “A” Street.  Eddie Peabody played his banjo for us in that Quonset hut and, clever boys that we were, we made up a little diddy about how Eddie “Playbody” had peed for us.

Eagle Scouts from left: Don Whitsoe, Mike Gordon, Jack Griffith, John Tegstrom, Elmer Castle, 1956.  © Jana Ariane Nelson

Eagle Scouts from left: Don Whitsoe, Mike Gordon, Jack Griffith, John Tegstrom, Elmer Castle, 1956. © Jana Ariane Nelson

Mel was a mild-mannered, intelligent man with a slight Norwegian accent who also took an interest in us kids.  The only time I went fishing on the Kenai River until I was middle-aged was when Mel took Norm and me to Bing’s Landing to fish for rainbow trout with the world famous Bing Brown, one of the early guides on the river who helped turn it into an international destination.

One day when I was maybe a sophomore in high school and Norm and Vaughn were freshmen, we were all practicing throwing a discus in the Rokeberg’s front yard.  I somehow managed to throw it right through their living room window.  I felt terrible about the incident and promised Mel and Ruby I would pay for the damages.  It was a lot of money for a kid and I’m sure they thought I’d probably never keep my promise, but I saved up money from my paper route and paid back every cent.  I know that meant a lot to them both, but Mel in particular, and it was no doubt part of the reason I was, in 1967, included when Mel put up $8,000 at 8% for Norm, Johnnie and me to invest in a business that ended up being the Bird House Bar.

When I was an adult, my mother admitted to me that Ruby was the only person in her life of whom she had ever been jealous.  I said, “But why, mom?”  She replied, “Because my son regularly came home carrying on about Ruby this and Ruby that!”  There is no doubt she was tough competition, and Ruby was home all day, Mel frequently working out of town, while my mom taught school five days a week (and didn’t have those Danish baking skills.)

Norman has reminded me about one of Ruby’s favorite stories and an important event in her life.  Like Mel, she was born in America, but returned to Denmark in the 1920s to spend her teenage years in Copenhagen working as a housemaid.  Among her prized possessions was a small embroidered envelope that held a card upon which was printed (translated):

Miss Ruby

From the

USA

Dancing the Charleston

The card was distributed to the public for a dance exhibition that included Ruby introducing the most popular dance of the “Roaring 20’s,” the Charleston, to Denmark.  She loved to dance and was known to drag unsuspecting males of all ages onto the dance floor.

Ruby’s love of dancing led to an interesting episode in the lives of Norman, Johnnie, myself and other members of the Black Panther Patrol, including perhaps Jack Griffith and Roger Harmon, when she coerced us into taking dancing lessons.  We were adolescent Boy Scouts and had not the least interest in learning to dance.  When the dreaded day arrived we were dragged to a dance studio on Spenard Road where the Tiki Lounge is now and introduced to two statuesque, tall, beautiful, blonde near-twin sisters, in their late 20s or early 30s, from Vienna.  Boy, did our attitudes change!  Over the course of several months we learned to tango, waltz, foxtrot and rumba.  I was pretty height-challenged at the time, being only an inch or two over five feet tall, so when I was held in a dancing embrace my face was staring into and smothered by a couple of humongous breasts.  It was hard to keep my mind on my feet.

Once in the early 1980s, when The Saltry had only been open a year or two, Norm and his wife, Gayle, and Mel and Ruby came to visit us in Halibut Cove.  Because of the small size of the restaurant then and the large size of the group, we had dinner upstairs and Marion Beck, the proprietress, waited on us herself.  There was a very limited menu and most of the items on it were either “sushied,” “pokied,” or pickled, the fish having been caught by Marion’s husband, Dave. Ruby had a fit.  There was no alternative menu, sushi had not become popular in the America as yet, especially in the Alaskan outback, and it wouldn’t have mattered to Ruby if it had.  She said, “Do you know about Pearl Harbor?”  “Don’t you know who won the war?!”  All the while, Mel was kicking her under the table and the rest of us stared in stunned silence.  It was a button on Ruby I had never witnessed being pushed.  Now I know that Marion has a temper, but she kept her cool, smiled and carried on admirably.  It was quite a show, and we’ve laughed about it many times since.

Norman, Mel and Ruby Rokeberg. © Norman Rokeberg

Norman, Mel and Ruby Rokeberg. © Norman Rokeberg

Ruby not only made pastries, she also made cakes for weddings, birthdays and other occasions.  She had not been able to make a wedding cake for my first marriage, which occurred in San Francisco, or my second, which had taken place in my log cabin on Sixth Avenue, but she was determined to make the cake for my marriage to Shelli.  She called me several times and I kept mentioning it to Shelli.  The cake wasn’t a big issue for Shelli, but it was for Ruby, who felt we needed a proper one.  She did make the cake, which was, at my request, a carrot cake that had to have cream cheese on it instead of frosting.  The little sugar rosettes Ruby spent days patiently forming with her arthritic fingers and freezing in Tupper Ware containers, wouldn’t adhere properly to the cream cheese like they would have to regular butter cream frosting because it was soft, and the flowers tended to sag and fall off, so Ruby had to stand guard over the cake, butter knife in hand, surreptitiously slapping those rosettes back in place.  There was never a more focused wedding cake attendant until it was time for it to be served.

It was a beautiful cake.  Ruby had outdone herself, and I was so pleased that she was so pleased to have been involved.  The cake was a great favorite at the reception and afterwards when the leftovers were put out in the Bartlett High School faculty lounge by my sister, Pat.

I took the time to visit Ruby after Mel had died and she was living in the Pioneer’s Home downtown.  I also attended her funeral so I could say goodbye to her.  There were two parents I remember that gave generously of their hearts and time to us kids when I was growing up.  One was Mr. Snipes, the father of another schoolmate, Larry, a fellow Boy Scout, who I always addressed respectfully as Mr. Snipes, even into adulthood–the other was Ruby.

Chilkoot Charlie’s and the Bird House

 

Photo copyright Dale Shawgo.  Permission is granted by Shawgo to Growing Up Anchorage for non exclusive use only.

Photo copyright Dale Shawgo. Do not copy. Permission for use is granted by Shawgo to Growing Up Anchorage.

Of all the more senior men in my personal life, Skip Fuller is the one that I hold in the highest esteem.  He was my mentor.  He believed in me and never faltered in his support of me until the day he died.  In fact he made a point of calling me “son” when I visited him for the last time on his deathbed in Mesquite, Nevada.  I impressed him early in our relationship when I, having bought the Alibi Club (which was basically an old-style Fourth Avenue bar in Spenard) from him and his partner, Jack Griffin, stated boldly that I was going to triple his business.  He replied, “You may double it, but you’ll never triple it.”  I quadrupled it in the first year.

I understood something that Skip did not.  Although Fairbanks had the Malemute Saloon, Juneau had the Red Dog Saloon and even little Homer had the Salty Dawg Saloon, Anchorage had no bar with an authentic Alaskan theme.  All the bars were either trying to mimic outside operations, or they were neighborhood bars, nightclubs or strip joints.  A couple of high school friends and I had successfully owned and operated the Bird House Bar, another of the funky Alaskan themed bars, on the Seward Highway from December of 1967 to December of 1968, our first business venture, which we had purchased from the estranged wife of the original owner, Cliff Brandt.

One of my partners, Johnnie Tegstrom, had leukemia, a present from Uncle Sam for having worked at the nuclear test site on Amchitka Island for a summer.  Shamefully, the United States government denied culpability in this matter for decades, or until most of the living relatives of the afflicted had passed away.  Johnnie spent most of his time in cancer treatment in New York during our year of ownership of the Bird House Bar.  My other partner, Norman, whose father had loaned the three of us the money to purchase the place, was the managing partner and worked the bar during the week.  I was married to my first wife and selling life insurance for New York Life.  Each week, on Friday afternoons, I would drive to Bird Creek and take over the bartending chores from Norm.  Working the place by myself, forty miles out the Seward Highway, with no phone, until 5:00 a.m., I would stagger to the little shack we owned behind the bar and go to sleep.  At noon the next day I would reopen the place and run it straight through until 5:00 a.m. again, stumble back to the shed for the night and reopen again on Sunday at noon.  Norm was supposed to relieve me around 6:00 p.m. as I recall, but was frequently late, which was the cause of some aggravation because I then had to drive back to Anchorage and present myself bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in suit and tie for an 8:00 a.m. Monday morning sales meeting at New York Life.  I did this routine for a year.

Johnnie Tegstrom at the Bird House, 1967-68

Johnnie bartending at the Bird House, 1968

In late 1968 it was apparent that Johnnie was not going to live much longer.  Norm wanted to return to college to continue his education, so we put the Bird House up for sale and it sold immediately for twice what we had paid for it to an ex-school teacher, Dick Delak.  Dick successfully operated the bar until December, 1993, when he was killed in a commuter airplane crash near Hibbing, Minnesota.  I believe he was on his way to visit an uncle for Christmas.  After Dick’s untimely death, his wife, Susan, ran the bar until February 18th, 1996, when it burned to the ground in the early morning hours.  Though the fire department blamed the blaze on faulty wiring, I have been told locals thought it was arson perpetrated by a Bird Creek resident.  I bought back the Bird House Bar name and rights from Susan in 2002 and rebuilt the place as part of Chilkoot Charlie’s.  She had dealt with a number of suitors for the name, but sold to me because she believed I would do it properly.

There was an open area at the rear of Chilkoot Charlie’s where we had horseshoe pits and held a free meal every Sunday afternoon for many years.  Amazingly, the Bird House fit perfectly into that space.  Believe it or not, the old place had an extant as-built survey, as well as a scale model made by some Bird Creek fan, and, of course, there were photos and videos available.  The fact that I had worked the place every weekend for a year didn’t hurt either.  Having been everyone’s favorite little bar, I was determined to make sure that it was an exact replica, and it is, right down to the bumper stickers around the inside of the bar.  The crew at Chilkoot Charlie’s, with the help of architect, Jeffery Wilson, built the place and when our crew got the bar installed they excitedly recruited me from my office nearby to take a look at it.  When I noticed the bar angle was not right and needed more of a slant to it, Craig, my property manager, said, “We can’t do it, Mike.  If we raise it on the outside end any more you won’t be able to see inside and if we lower it anymore on the inside we’d have to tear the floor out and start all over.”  My immediate reply was, “Start tearing.”  To my great satisfaction, no one has ever criticized the reincarnation.  It is a virtual time machine, though the only thing in it that was actually in the old Bird House on the highway is the stove, singularly unaffected by the blaze.  Thus, the Bird House Bar had been the parent of Chilkoot Charlie’s and now Chilkoot Charlie’s is the parent of the Bird House Bar, under whose wing it is protected by a modern fire sprinkler system.

Mike and Jeff with model of The Bird House

Mike and Jeff with model of The Bird House

While bartending at the Bird House Bar during my year of weekends I met my future partner in Chilkoot Charlie’s.  He was a lawyer named Bill Jacobs, who owned a condominium at the base of Mount Alyeska and travelled back and forth from Anchorage to ski on weekends, regularly stopping to imbibe at the Bird House Bar.  Norm and John and I had frequently discussed the idea of figuratively putting the Bird House Bar on a flat bed truck and hauling it to Anchorage, where all the people were.  Bill and I became friends and I convinced him of the idea of creating an Alaska-themed bar in Anchorage.  Bill made an arrangement with his mother, living in Chicago, to borrow $20,000 and the hunt was on for a location.

Bill was practicing law and I was feeding my family by selling life insurance while looking for a bar that suited our purposes.  I had also made an arrangement with another friend to purchase a half block of property in downtown Anchorage with fifteen rentals on it, I being the resident manager.  Bill and I were involved in probably ten different potential deals, some of course more appealing than others, and the very first one was the Alibi Club on Spenard Road, owned by Skip Fuller and Jack Griffin.  I was not sure at the time that it was the best location and I felt they were asking for too much money.

Meanwhile, I was tired of selling insurance and a lot of people had suggested to me that I should become involved in radio or television, mostly because of my voice.  In those days, broadcasters had to take a pretty simple FCC test and be licensed before they could go on the air, so I went to the old federal building on Fourth Avenue and got licensed.  Next, I applied for a job as a disc jockey with local radio station KHAR.  I vividly remember Ken Flynn was the station manager and he had me go into a little booth and read a couple of advertisements over a microphone.  One was an ad for Volkswagen.  When I was finished he said, “I hate it when some kid walks in straight of the street and sounds better than I do!”  Then he hired me.

Selling life insurance for New York Life, I basically set my own hours, so, though I was working on the downtown apartments, trying to put another bar deal together and crawling under the buildings of prospective purchases through the reeking fumes of space heaters placed to prevent the plumbing from freezing, I went in the mornings to KHAR each day to learn how to work “the board.”  My teacher was Ruben Gaines.  This chance meeting was one of the most important in either of our lives though neither of us could have possibly guessed it at the time.

Ruben was the consummate raconteur, and a truly gifted and professional writer and entertainer in every sense of the word.  They simply didn’t “make ’em any better, man!”  I marveled at his abilities.  He had a program called Conversations Unlimited, in which he entertained Alaskans every day of the week for half an hour during prime drive-home time with his storytelling, wit and social commentaries, mixed with easy-listening music fore and aft.  His theme song, I nostalgically recall, was Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”  Ruben had different established characters in his stories, including Doc, Mrs. Malone, Six-toed Mordecai and, of course, Chilkoot Charlie, a titan sourdough reprobate Ruben dreamed up during a long, rainy winter in Ketchikan in the late 1940s.  Ruben would bring these characters to life for his audience, and when he put himself into their different personalities he virtually become them.  The character I remember most vividly being personalized was Doc, the crusty sourdough, for whom Ruben would greatly protrude his lower lip to produce the appropriate vocal personality.

Ruben had also worked a spell in Fairbanks before settling in Anchorage.  While working in Fairbanks, he and another talented radio guy, sportscaster Ed Stevens, would brilliantly broadcast “live” major league baseball games.  Of course, there were no satellites back then, so Alaskans had to wait several days for tape recordings to arrive, and calling the states was expensive.   Ruben and Ed would receive the play-by-play information about a game from a buddy in the Lower 48 by telephone and would then “broadcast” the game as if it were live, including the excitement one would expect from the announcer, the sound effects of the ball being hit, the crowd roaring and all.  People in the Bush never knew the difference between Ruben and Ed’s broadcasts and the real thing.

Each morning I sat watching Ruben produce his magic and not long after something monumental happened.  Oil was discovered on the North Slope and a state auction raised $900,000,000 from the sale of leases at Prudhoe Bay.  It was a colossal amount of money in 1969, though today the state’s budget is well over ten times that much each year.  As Bob Dylan so aptly noted in his popular song, ” . . . the times they [were] a-changin’,” and given the changing circumstances, I figured I would visit Skip Fuller again to see if the Alibi Club was still for sale.  It was, but the price had gone up, like the price of everything else.

Not wanting to miss the potential bonanza of owning a bar during a boom period, Bill and I bit the bullet, borrowed the pre-arranged $20,000 from his mother for the down payment and closed the deal.  Now owning the bar, I had to finalize my ideas on a name and specific Alaskan theme for the place.  It came down to two ideas and I kept a pad by my bed and woke up frequently in the night writing down ideas about both.  One had to do with a much-maligned local variety of salmon—the pink, or humpy.  I had scales of ideas about Mr. and Mrs. Humpy.  You do not have to think long about the idea to realize what fertile ground it is and, of course, sooner or later someone was going to employ the name, and did.  The other idea was Chilkoot Charlie’s.  I was torn between the two names.

Mike, the original Koots greeter

Mike, the original Koots greeter

I had a young married couple living in the six-plex on East Sixth Avenue.  The husband’s name was Mel Bownes.  He was a schoolteacher and I really liked him and his wife.  When I would go around to collect the monthly rents they would sometimes invite me in for dinner.  They lived in a very large apartment on the ground floor that had originally housed a gambling operation.  As a side note, a tenant at another time in this unit, Joe Hendricks, now Alaska’s most senior big game guide, tried to start the fireplace one night and almost burned the place down because the second floor had been built right over the first with no flue running through from the top of the first floor to the new roof line.  I either failed to warn him or was as ignorant as he, probably the latter.  There was a picture over the fireplace that had hinges on the upper edge so it could be lifted up and behind it was a hidden safe installed in the days when the apartment building had housed a gambling operation.

One night while I was having dinner with Mel and his wife I presented my dilemma to them.  Mel hesitated not a moment and said, “What, are you crazy?  Call it Chilkoot Charlie’s!”  How could I turn down the forcefully presented suggestion of a guy, who was providing me with food and wine, and not only was a tenant, but had been a customer at The Bird House Bar and was a life insurance policy holder of mine to boot?  It was a done deal.

We opened Chilkoot Charlie’s on January first of 1970, New Year’s Day, and the worst night of the year for any bar, but in the tradition of old Alaska, Skip threw a welcome party for us, inviting all of his loyal patrons and friends, and we grossed an incredible $464.50 that first night.  Skip said, “When you sell a place you want to make sure the new guy can make it, and you’ve got to allow for him to do it in the way you structure the deal.”  He also said after the party, “Hang onto your money.  You won’t have another night like that for a long time.”  We grossed $7,534.43 that first month and ended up the year with a gross of $158,775.  Cliff, my manager, and I had so much fun with our zany outfits and our three piece band, The Rinky Tinks that first year, and business took off so fast, it was like hanging onto the bumper of an accelerating vehicle while trying to keep your legs moving fast enough to keep up.  Toward the end of that first year, Skip said, “This place is going to pay for a lot of mistakes.”

The Operation

Ruins of Portage; Building destroyed in the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, in the now-abandoned town of Portage, Alaska; Creative Commons photo by Beeblebrox.

It’s an unpublished historical fact that in the mid 60’s there were more characters around Turnagain Arm than anywhere else in the world.

“The name’s Planter!!” echoed around the small Bird Creek bar known as Diamond Jim’s, where Jim was proprietor.  Planter was a part time gandy dancer on the Alaska Railroad and a full time inebriate.  Fortunately he favored the more modern accommodations of Diamond Jim’s to the rustic quaintness of the Bird House Bar a couple of miles further down the road, and of which I was a one-third partner.

Lord only knows what I was doing in Diamond Jim’s on this particular occasion, probably closed up early.  I remember I was playing a game of pool with someone.

“The name’s Planter!!”  rang out loud and clear as if no one had heard the previous dozen or so identical  pronouncements.  Leonard and I glanced at Jim to read his reaction from behind the bar.

Leonard was a barber from town who lived in the vicinity.  His wife, Hanna, worked as a cook in Girdwood at the old Double Musky Inn.  He was a pretty good drinker too and a good customer of ours, for better or worse, at the Bird House Bar.  Jim had already muttered something about stitches being in Planter’s eyebrow a couple of weeks too long.

“The name’s Planter!!”  for the umpteenth time.  That’s it.  Jim tells Planter in no uncertain terms that if he announces his name one more time, he’s going to personally remove those eyebrow stitches.  Planter had recently, and not for the first time, run his car off the road.  It was more “windy” then, but not “windy” enough for Planter.

“The name’s Planter!!”  Have you ever known a drunk that could take a hint, no matter how resourcefully or forcefully presented.  Well that was the end of the pool game because Planter was soon laying on his back, arms and legs restrained, staring wildly up at the Budweiser surgical light.  Cocktail napkins soon appeared over the faces of Jim and Leonard.  Everclear 190 proof grain alcohol appeared from behind the bar for an antiseptic.  Planter didn’t need an anesthesiologist.

There was simply the surgeon, Jim, the assistant surgeon, Leonard, myself and a couple of others holding the struggling Planter to the green felt operating table.  Jim and his wife, Mary Lou, lived in the back of the place so it was easy to procure scissors and tweezers.  The operation was underway!

Jim, who had the steadier hand, would snip the stitches and Leonard’s pudgy fingers would gleefully grasp the loose ends with the tweezers and yank them from Planter’s head, being tightly held from behind between my hands.  The operation continued into the long Alaskan night despite Planter’s frequent vulgar pronouncements.  Though we probably did Planter a favor removing those stitches before they became infected, I can certainly understand his unhappiness, staring up at that fiendish hospital crew.

“The name’s Planter!!”  was heard no more that night nor since at Diamond Jim’s Bar (now defunct), formerly of Portage (now defunct), but it’s been resounding off the walls of my brain for almost 25 years!

Max and the Axe

Buckner Building, Whittier. Wikimedia Commons, by Gabor Eszes. Building heavily damaged during 1964 Earthquake.

Max had a kind of face you never forgot.  Not because it was characteristic in any way.  Just the opposite.  Max’s face was so devoid of anything remotely resembling personality it was shocking.  He had a humorless countenance that ran right through.  You could have given him a million dollars or stuck a hot poker up his ass and Max wouldn’t have blinked.

I never could understand what Ruth saw in Max or what my parents saw in the company of either of them.  And, Max was an agent for the I.R.S.  How I got involved in a moose hunting trip with Max and Bill remains one of those childhood mysteries, but I strongly suspect my old man had a hand in it.  Someone had to watch over the menagerie, but more on that later.

Bill was the consummate Alaskan character.  He reigned over the Portage Garage before it sank, along with the rest of Portage, in the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964.  Portage at the time of this story was a thriving community and the gateway to Whittier, still occupied by Uncle Sam’s army.  You couldn’t drive to Whittier and there was no reason to put your car on a railroad car because there wouldn’t have been any place to drive it once you got there.  Nearly everyone in Whittier lived in the same building, due to the heavy snowfalls.  In the building was everything from a bowling alley to a cafeteria to a movie to a barber shop.  You didn’t need a vehicle for transportation.

So Bill parked, and unshoveled, and started and repaired all the cars that were left in Portage by people coming and going from Whittier.  He had a thriving business.  Bill was one of those guys that feared nothing and could do anything.  He ran a trapline for beaver and muskrat along the railroad tracks and there were always pelts stretched and drying around the place.  He could make corned beef out of his seasonal moose, repair your transmission or dig a water-well the hard way, by hand, shoring up with hand-cut logs and removing dirt with a rope and bucket as he went, by pulley.

Bill also had the aforementioned menagerie.  He could have charged admission and perhaps did to the stray tourist of those days.  I don’t remember.  But I do remember the peacocks, pheasants, pigeons, quail, rabbits, ducks, geese, calves, chickens, and no doubt several species I’ve neglected to mention.  Of course, all these creatures had to be fed and watered every day and there was a garden to tend in the summer.

Bill was a brawler and a boozer and when he came into Anchorage for that rare weekend of fun, he’d stay at our house, clean up and head for the Forest Park Country Club.  Bill was a womanizer, too.  He’d get shit-faced drunk, come back to the house loud and obnoxious and he and my dad would stay up all night long.  He literally destroyed one Christmas Eve at our place.

I was a sophomore or junior in high school about this time and I loved Bill for all his incivilities.  He taught me how to “Drive the car.  Don’t let it drive you.”  He’d take me on the trapline with him and we’d shoot ducks along the railroad tracks.  He sold me an old, ugly Cushman motorcycle, the engine of which he had re-bored.  It wasn’t pretty, but because it had been re-bored it would keep up with the brand new Cushman Eagles of the day.  I’m lucky I didn’t kill myself on it.

Bill was a man’s man and a woman’s man all wrapped in one and I’d have followed him to the end of the earth.  So it’s not hard, really, to figure out how I ended up on that moose hunt.  It was decided that we would fly into the lake at the head of 20 Mile Creek, both glacial.  The creek, which has always looked more like a river to me, runs across the Seward Highway into Turnagain Arm right outside of Portage.  Maybe a river has to be a creek if it’s only 20 miles long.

Anyway, we were to be picked up in three days by the same pilot and my parents were to watch the Portage Garage during that time; no small undertaking.  Unbeknownst to us or anyone else but him, the pilot crashed his plane while taking another hunter to the bush a couple of days later and, though surviving the crash, had to walk back to civilization.  Bill and Max and I were comfortable enough in a small log cabin by the lake, though we never saw hide nor hair of a moose.  We had enough provisions for the three days we were to be there, and when the fourth rolled around, we took advantage of a package of powdered eggs that had been left in the cabin.  We fashioned fishing poles from alder saplings and used some salmon eggs also left in the cabin to catch Dolly Varden trout.

We had it made.  It was not unusual for a pilot to be a day or so late to pick you up in those days.  The guides generally had only one plane and depending on weather and circumstances might or might not be on time.  But when the 5th and 6th days rolled around we decided we’d better start taking things into our own hands.  The plan was to build a raft and float ourselves and our gear down the creek to the Seward Highway.

This is where the most amazing transformation began to overcome Max.  He had been his usual dull self until then, but it seems when Max was young and before he had become a mindless bureaucratic cog, he had worked in a government CCC Camp during the Great Depression.  There was a double-bladed axe in the cabin.  Cabins in those days were left stocked and equipped for people in circumstances such as ours.  Max suggested that he cut the logs because he was “pretty good” with an axe.  Bill and I readily but dubiously agreed and then stood in awe as Max cut and trimmed log after log.  He was a virtuoso.  Never to this day have I ever seen anyone handle an axe like Max.

Another couple of days rolled by and the raft began to take shape.  The character and humanity in Max’s face grew in direct proportion to the size of the blisters on those pencil-pushing hands.

There was a copy of The Life of Billy the Kid on hand and I read and reread it in my spare time.  If you want to know anything about Billy the Kid or Pat Garrett just ask me.  I’m the expert.  I can even tell you what pages the mustard stains were on:  36 and 39.  One scene sticks out in my memory.  The Kid is drinking in a bar when this guy walks in with matching pearl-handled revolvers strapped to his waist.  The Kid has already spotted those matching pearl-handled revolvers and considered how nice they would look on him, when the fellow wearing them, who has conveniently had too much to drink, begins to berate the Kid.  “The Kid’s an Egg Sucker” he says.  “The Kid’s a Goddamn Egg Sucker!”

When I walked out of the bar with Billy, him wearing his brand new matching pearl-handled revolvers, Max was working on his “umteenth” blister.  Day seven rolls around and the Dolly Varden and powdered eggs, though heavenly sent, were wearing pretty thin.  Thank God the raft was ready.  We piled all of our gear on the raft, tied a long rope to it and Max and Bill pulled it along the shore while I, on board with a pole, steadied the load and kept the raft from intersecting shore.  The cabin was at the far end of the lake so it took awhile for us to get to the other end, from which the creek drained.  Just as we were preparing to embark on our down river journey, guess who came flying over?  Probably a damn good thing for us and our gear.  Twenty Mile Creek is not exactly the lazy Mississippi.

My parents were happy to see us for more than one reason.  In addition to taking care of the garage business all those days, and my parents were not mechanically inclined, the only way the calves would eat was if you’d mix up their meal and let them lick and suck it off your fingers.  There were three or four calves and they required feeding at least twice a day.

It was rumored that Max, a few days later chased Ruth around their small “L” Street Apartment naked with a plum in his mouth.  I’ve often wondered if that bureaucratic cog hadn’t permanently slipped its gear.

 

Safaris

Chilkoot Charlies

Old-timers can remember when the peanuts were free at Chilkoot Charlie’s.  Originally, when the place was only 25 feet wide and 100 feet long with one bar the peanuts were acquired by pulling the handle on an old plunger-type toilet that proudly announced “Nuts to You!”  It was situated by the one and only waitress station.  The nuts flowed with each hungry pull of the lever into any one of an assortment of containers I had provided:  old tin cups, plates, bowls, etc.; all scoured from second hand stores around Anchorage.  To replenish the supply we simply dumped more nuts into the top of the toilet.

As the bar’s notoriety spread and business grew, the old toilet gave way to 30 and 40 gallon plastic buckets at each of the now several bars.  The old tin containers gave way to plastic bowls.  Such is progress.  The original floor wasn’t much to look at.  So rather than look at it I simply instructed the patrons to throw their peanut shells on the floor.  As an added incentive we would fine them .25 cents if they insisted on neatly stacking them on the bar in front of them or placing them in their ashtrays.

In the midst of all this some oil companies paid the state of Alaska $900 million for leases on the North Slope and the rush was on.  It was hard to keep good help during the pipeline construction because everyone, understandably enough, wanted to get their hands on some of that big money.  I knew guys and gals that had never had a good wage in their lives that were driving a bus of God-knows-what-all and making $1,000.00 to $2,000.00 a week plus room and board.  They were mostly out of control.  The good times would never end!  They’d line up at the bar to see who could out-spend the other.  They bought new cars.  They took vacations to places they’d never heard of a year before, and they drank and snorted and stayed all night at any one of the many massage parlors along Spenard Road or threw their money over the tables at the host of after-hours gambling establishments.

The down side of all this for me, though the money was flowing agreeably enough, was the fact that everyone was out of control.  There were fights literally every night and I had a crew of the toughest sons-of-bitches north of Seattle on my door and on my floor just to keep the peace.  The worst problems were the aimless assholes from down south.  It was as if someone had pried a rock loose in California and every shiftless, no-good, unwanted under it had slithered up the Alcan Highway and was immediately at my front door.  It was like us against them, and though we never lost a fight we did eventually get into some trouble for heavy-handedness.  I’m glad all that’s over.  Anchorage is a more civilized place today.

Anyway, during the pipeline era I had an uncommonly good janitor.  His name was Mike S.  His nickname was Big Foot, for obvious reasons.  If you’d had a couple and wanted to get his attention you could just holler, “Hey, Boot!” and Mike would invariably appear from somewhere in the recesses of the bar, covered with peanut shells.  I have a vivid memory of Mike sitting on his haunches on the floor of the Show Bar around 6 a. m. sifting peanut shells into a nice clean pile.  Part of Mike’s job was to sweep up the shells each morning after the bar had closed at 5 a. m., sift them through a hand-held wire screen, spread them throughout the club and then douse them with fire retardant.

Big Foot was very territorial.  Everything below the knees in that place after closing was his.  Bartenders and waitresses had their tips and he had his:  anything he found on the floor.  Occasionally a brave, careless or uninformed bartender or doorman would venture around the bar, flashlight in hand, in search of treasures in Foot’s domain.  If they got caught their ass was his and everyone else stayed out of it.  Anything you dropped on that floor was pretty hard to retrieve.  The place was crowded for one thing, and the shells would generally be 2 to 3 inches deep.  Foot would come up with $100.00 bills, jewelry and grams of coke almost every night.

One night after closing I was wandering around the place, nosing here and there as I’m prone to do, when I came across a .22 rifle laying on a stack of beer in the storage room.  I made a mental note to ask Foot about it.  It wasn’t long before I had located him and when asked about the rifle he began to shuffle those huge namesakes of his in the freshly sifted peanut shells.  I offered an assurance or two but insisted on knowing what the deal was with that rifle.  What an unexpected story I got!

I was afraid it was stolen; perhaps part of a drug deal.  Maybe even a gun that had been used in some foul play.  Nothing of the kind.  That gun was used for safaris.  You see Chilkoot’s had not only become very popular with people.  It had become a world class hangout for mice.  It was like a small game preserve and Big Foot was the game warden who had recently begun to perceive his job as that of thinning out the herd.  Whenever it was convenient, between 5 a. m. and 10 a. m. when the bar reopened for business, Foot and his buddies would load up the .22 rifle with birdshot and go on safari.

A mouse running across the back-bar in front of a row of glasses could be killed with a blast of bird shot without breaking a single glass.  Of course there would be blood and other unpleasantries spattered around but that could always be cleaned up.  I suggested in the name of health concerns and keeping the herd trimmed that I should accompany Foot and his buddies on a safari some night and Foot reluctantly and bashfully agreed, but before it could ever be arranged Foot went to work on the pipeline along with everyone else.  I did, however, have a photo and would give anything for it today, of Mike and one of his assistant wardens leaning against the bar, rifles in hand, with 5 or 6 mice bravely displayed between them.  Ernest Hemmingway, eat your heart out!

What happened to all those mice is another story.  By now Jimmy Carter was president of the United States and inflation was on—big time.  It had been common practice in the bars around Anchorage, if you were out on a run-away and wanted to give your friendly competition a bad time, to wipe all their glasses off the bar with one swipe of the hand.  They didn’t get mad.  They got even.  You see, glasses hadn’t cost “diddly-squat,” but with the arrival of double digit inflation that kind of game was no longer fun.

Also, you might remember, Jimmy was a peanut farmer.  If you ever want to have a shortage of peanuts and the consequential jump in price just put a peanut farmer in the White House.  Seriously.  I had been buying 40 pound boxes of peanuts from some wholesaler in Oregon and before long I was searching the local grocery chains for one pound bags.  You can imagine the difference in price.  So, I did what I had to do.  I bought a popcorn popper and started putting cedar chips on the floor.  This system remains in effect today.

You want to know what happened to all those mice?  There isn’t enough nutrition in popcorn, so they all migrated en mass back across the street to the Sunrise Bakery.  What a reunion party that must have been!

“Avez-vous Une Cigarette”

Jet Lowe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. This file comes from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) or Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS).

It’s funny what you remember of being thirteen! I remember the brand new feeling of freedom!  It began with the permission to ride my bicycle further into places I’d never been, of the increasing responsibility and trust of my family as my world expanded.  In June of 1955 my best friend Emmy and I had waited all week for Saturday to arrive as we’d planned an adventure to “downtown.

Clutching our $1 weekly allowance and our babysitting earnings we boarded the city bus feeling very grown up. In my 13 year old world there were two directions in Anchorage, the “mountain side” behind us, and the “inlet side” in front of us; the bus was traveling toward the inlet. We passed  the 14 story McKinley Building, the tallest building in Anchorage where one of our classmates lived in an apartment on the 11th floor and our family eye doctor had his office on the ground floor, and then by the florist owned by the parents of another classmate.  We disembarked at the bus station and stood in front of Monty’s Department Store for awhile giggling at passersby stumbling on the cracked sidewalk before we walked down stairs to a basement bowling alley and enjoyed cherry cokes before we headed for Dorn’s Music Den.  As we discovered the new world of rock and roll Dorn was our guru; we listened to many records there before we decided which one would be our prize that day.  Emmy got to choose one week and I got to choose the next.  That day Emmy chose The Wayward Wind by Gogi Grant.  (Later as we listened to it in her living room, her quiet father, whom I’d never heard speak, muttered as he walked thru the room “that’s better than the asinine stuff you’re usually listening to” – which sent us running to the dictionary to look up the word “asinine”.  We worked hard to fit that word into every conversation for the next year).

The sun was bright and the day was warm as we crossed the street to look into the window of David’s Furriers, where I would later purchase the skins that Susie’s mother used to make my fur parka, a true work of art.  Back on the sunny side of the street we passed the Silver Dollar Saloon where we discussed hearing that there were silver dollars embedded in the bar; we made a pact to someday check out that bar to see those dollars.  My Dad collected silver dollars and always jokingly (I think) told us that they would be our inheritance.

Next it was on to look into Ellen’s Jewelry Store, where we pretended that we might buy a pair of wonderful ruby drop earrings.  How I coveted those earrings!  Ellen waited on us herself and I laugh now as I think how patient she was with two young teens acting as though they were seriously about to spend $895.  I laugh that I still remember the price today.

We’d made an appointment to have our portraits taken in the photography studio upstairs in Hewitt’s Drugstore, a gift we would give our parents who cherished them for many years.  Satisfied that we’d made a wise move, we then sat at Hewitt’s counter drinking more cherry cokes and practicing the few phrases of French we knew.  We planned to take French in high school when we got there, but so far we knew only a few phrases…our favorite was “Avez-vous une cigarette?”  Although we knew what it meant of course neither of us smoked but we loved the way those words rolled off our tongues.  So our next stop was to stand on the corner in front of the huge white post office building, pretending we were French tourists asking each other “Avez-vous une cigarette?” (We were idiots!)

Jet Lowe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. For the U.S. National Park Service on the Historic American Building Survey and Historic American Engineering Record projects.

We checked out what was playing at the Fourth Avenue Theater, a beautiful art deco building that would later play in many an Anchorage teenager’s memories.  A trip to the movies was rare for us in those days, but I eagerly watched for glimpses of the ushers or usherettes.  I loved their green uniforms with the gold stripes down the side and the gold epaulettes. To be an usherette in that glorious uniform was my career aspiration at 13!  We followed the narrow walkway alongside the theater to the small cafe behind it.  I don’t remember if it was the actual name but we referred to it as “Hernando’s Hideaway” and it contained a major desired item for two thirteen year olds, a juke box!  Dark and dusky inside, it was the perfect place to play “Twilight Time” by the Platters (even ShBoom by the Chords) as we shared a burger and French fries.

Next it was time to visit with our parish priest, Father Baker, at Holy Family, a block over on Fifth Avenue. As members of the choir we attended rehearsals on Wednesday night and sang High Mass on Sundays.  He was our priest on Sundays, our teacher in classes, but on Saturdays he was our friend.  He received us in the rectory with milk and cookies.  A great mentor, he always listened and was very nonjudgmental as he answered our sometimes challenging questions about growing up. (“Why can’t we see Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront?” and a favorite and oft repeated “Why don’t our parents let us do (whatever)?” and “Why don’t adults understand that we’ve grown up?”  (I realize now he was a saint) J

Back on Fourth Avenue we headed for Bert’s Drug Store where we skulked through the aisles searching to spy on the stockboy Emmy had a crush on who she dreamed of growing up and marrying.  It occurs to me that in today’s world we’d be “stalkers”.  Not able to spot him that day, we went to check out the nifty clothes in the Northern Commercial Department Store.  We laughed at the memory of doing a radio program in the window of the store “wayyy back” when we were Girl Scouts at the ripe old age of 10.

Our final stop was to the Milky Way, a favorite for a shared chocolate milk shake and more juke box rock and roll.  By this time it’s a wonder we didn’t roll out the door, but it was time to visit our favorite park at the end of the road down by the inlet, where we pushed each other on swings and shared our excitement about going to high school, then wondered if Elvis Presley would wait until we grew up so we could date him, and then we quietly watched the sun dipping lower over the Sleeping Lady.

Time to catch the bus home, we ran all the way back down Fourth.  It was a happy, happy day to be thirteen growing up in Anchorage!

My BFF referred to as Emmy in this blog laughs with me as we remember that special Saturday when we were thirteen and looking forward excitedly to our future.  Even though it was one of many wonderful memories, it’s one we both remember as indelibly imprinted in our memory banks.  She visits me every couple of years and we happily reminisce over the special years; and we both fervently hope all of you share wonderful memories of Fourth Avenue too!

Dancing Past the Drunks

 

 

Two wonderful young women from Vienna, Austria opened the first dance studio in Anchorage at 5th and G Streets and called it the “Rhythm School of Dance”.   Originally professional dancers with the Vienna Opera Ballet, they married American servicemen and not long after World War II ended, they found themselves in cold, remote Anchorage.   For centuries, known as an elegant, cultured environment, Vienna was bombed 52 times during the war and the girls were probably grateful to find themselves far away from those memories.  These women looked larger than life to me, but after all, I wasn’t even 10 when Mom enrolled me in their school, and I considered anyone tall who was over 4 ft.  Gretl taught ballet, and her sister Guky taught acrobatics.  There was tap as well, but Mother confined me to ballet and acrobatics – my forte.

Anchorage was short on television at the time and there was no such thing as video or DVD players.  In grade school our cultural studies consisted mainly of listening to the “Standard School Broadcast”, a once a week radio program that brought us culture in the form of classical music.  For a half hour or so we were forced to listen to this broadcast whether we wanted to or not.  For me, it was a “want to”.  I would put my head down on my arms on my desk, close my eyes, and instantly become a famous ballerina pirouetting across the world stage.  Dance class on Saturday mornings was not enough for me.

If I close my eyes tight now I can almost see the studio on 5th and G Streets in Anchorage.  I remember the acrobatic lessons with Guky, splits and handstands, cartwheels and backovers, and the strong canvas strap around my waist when I tried handsprings.  I remember Gretl, her grace and gentle teaching style as we practiced at the bar: Plie`s and Tendus, Releve`s and Degage`s.

AND I remember the drunks.  Ah yes, the drunks.  In order to get to dance class every Saturday, if not driven, I had to take the bus to town.  The bus station was on the notorious east end of 4th Avenue, a number of sleazy blocks consisting of more bars than sober people.  And I had to walk past all the noisy taverns and the drunks and the addicts loitering on the sidewalks.   Funny how one’s memory works.   I suspect that most of the time Mom or Dad drove me to class and that only very rarely did I need to get to and from the bus station.  Yet it is those walks past the odiferous, obnoxious drunks that I remember.

Fast forward about 35 years.  My oldest granddaughter, Cassandra, took dance classes from Gretl.  The very same Gretl that I had loved and adored so many years earlier.   Gretl, if you can look down from Heaven, please know that you inspired in me a love of dance that is still a large part of my life 60 years later!   And I say this as I am slipping on my ballet shoes and running out the door to class!

Cassandra, age 6, in her Recital Costume

 

 

Here are two pictures of Cassandra in her recital costume.  The lovely blond with her in the second picture is Gretl.

 

 

 

 

Cassandra with Gretl

 

 

Be sure to click on this link:

Practicing for Recital

This is a video – taken from a movie my Dad took back in 1952 when I was practicing for my first recital at the Rhythm School of Dance. (Don’t turn the sound up …. there is none, just the sound of a projector whirring!)  Enjoy!

 

Practicing for Recital

Fourth Avenue, Natives and B Girls

by

Jan Petri Harper Haines

In the early fifties, Alaska Natives made up less than a third of Anchorage’s population. In the forties, a court order had officially put a dent in racial segregation, making it illegal for businesses to post signs forbidding entrance to Natives, but it was another ten or fifteen years before the shock to the white population wore off and proprietors greeted my Athabascan relatives with a smile.

I was only about eight years old, but I noticed that when white people drank they joked about being tipsy and shrugged it off. Yet a drunk Indian or Eskimo staggering along Fourth Avenue led to sneering remarks about Siwashes. That image and the racial slurs smeared all Natives, even my mother, who didn’t drink. “People don’t see me,” she’d say, resigned as she shelved books in the Loussac Library where she worked. “They see a drunken Indian on Fourth Avenue.”

From the time she was a child Mom had sought respect, a desire that propelled her to graduate from the University of Alaska. So it was no surprise that she — who never wanted to rock the boat in her efforts to fit in — was horrified when Dad, with the confidence of his Dutch/German whiteness, wrote letters to the editor of the Anchorage Daily Times, calling certain city officials and town leaders, crooks, communists and worse. It didn’t stop there because Dad was also a cartoonist.

“Pete, please don’t enter that in the Fur Rendezvous art show,” Mom said, staring in dismay at his oil painting, a caricature of Alaska’s territorial senator. Red Tape And Error was painted above the portrait in garish letters.

Although Mom couldn’t control Dad’s letters, or the screaming portraits of local politicians, she could damn well make sure we looked presentable. It didn’t matter if we were going to church, the grocery store or to pay a bill at Chugach Electric. “Pete, those pants are dirty, put these on.”

Dad didn’t mind. “If it makes your mom happy,” he’d say, smiling. She felt it was her responsibility to help improve the image of Native people. She knew others were watching. She was right. We always drew attention, whether shopping for groceries or sitting at the counter in Hewitt’s Drugstore. People would look at me, fair and light eyed, then at Mom who might have been Japanese, then at my father, blue-eyed and with the strong white teeth of a farm kid. After another look, gazes resting on each of us, comprehension dawned. He’s the father.

We looked, Mom said, if not prosperous then clean, respectable and SOBER. She didn’t mind the curious stares. “It beats being snubbed,” she’d say, lifting her chin.

Thanks to movies featuring Indian women in red off shoulder blouses. Mom, her sisters and my grandmother flatly refused to wear red. “Hoostiutes,” they’d mutter.

I had to admit, the only Indian women I saw in movies were in westerns where they were slapped around and called “squaws.” Even when the “squaw” was Jennifer Jones in orange makeup. Mom and her sisters hated the song, “Squaws Along The Yukon,” and especially “…are good enough for me.”

“Humph,” Mom would snort, glinty-eyed.

Fourth Avenue was the main street in Anchorage. I loved it. The west end had the Empress and 4th Avenue theaters, shops, a few bars and restaurants, First National Bank, Northern Commercial Company, the Anchorage Daily Times, City Hall and the post office. The east end of Fourth was seedier, with bars and saloons with names like The Silver Dollar, Moose’s, Caribou Lounge, The Nevada Club and The Aurora.

When Bob Hope visited Anchorage in 1959, he called Fourth Avenue “the longest bar in the world.” Most of the locals, men anyway, laughed. East Fourth also had a Mercantile that carried fabric, patterns and inexpensive clothing. The Denali movie theater was next to it. There, one summer afternoon, a man slid his hand between my legs when I squeezed past him to get to my seat. I was alone and sat well away from him. The movie was probably a western, but I was shaking and don’t remember.

Fourth Avenue was one of the first streets to get sidewalks where people could stroll, enjoying the long summer days and mild weather. On sunny afternoons, women in red lipstick, tight sweaters, sheath skirts, and high heels emerged from apartments and residential hotels. One afternoon a tall slender woman with black hair and a slim skirt cinched at the waist by a wide belt passed us. “She looks just like Jane Russell.” I whispered, grabbing Mom’s worn coat. Her permanent was growing out and her hair stuck out oddly. But instead of being excited at the sight of this exotic creature, Mom yanked me toward the post office where Dad was waiting, leaning against our ’48 Studebaker that smelled of cigar.

“B girls,” I heard her say on the way home. I opened the small side window, inhaled the fresh air and wondered what a B girl was.

That afternoon when Mom was napping on the sofa, I sidled up to Dad. He was painting a landscape with a small brush, adding a touch of white, called termination dust, to the mountains. “What’s a B-girl?” I asked. Since mom couldn’t hear us, I thought he might tell me.

He hesitated and glanced over at Mom. An Ellery Queen mystery was open on her stomach. Then he turned back to the painting, switched brushes and added a touch of carnelian to highlight a mountain peak in twilight. Still not looking at me, he said, “I’ll tell you when you’re older, kiddo.”

I finally decided B-girls must work in bars or sit on bar stools and that’s where the “B” came from. From my mother’s expression, these women must be like B movies, slapped together cheaply with unknown actors and a piss-poor plot. But that only told me how they got the name, not what made them different from other women. I sighed. By the time I was old enough for Dad to tell me, I’d probably have figured it out for myself. I had a hunch that’s what he was waiting for.

The Jim Alice

 by Dan Riker

It was May of 1958, Alaska was not yet a state, and I had just turned 16; school was out for the summer and like many young teenage boys, I was at loose ends.  The previous summer was spent tearing up the back yard and putting in a garden; the rotting vines and weeds which still choked the yard were an ugly reminder that I didn’t want to try gardening for a second summer.  Besides, I’m sure the Anchorage fire department still remembered my name and my earlier attempts at burning weeds. No real damage was done, but that’s not the type of exposure a teenage boy needs, especially 2 years in a row.

My mother owned a bar on the corner of 4th Avenue and C Street and I earned pocket money by helping clean and re-stock the beer coolers each morning.  In the process I got to know many of the regulars, working men, unemployed men, retired men, and working ladies.  One of the clients was a man by the name of Jim; he and his wife Alice owned the JIM ALICE, a 65 ft charter vessel which was undergoing repairs in Seward.

During one of many conversations at the bar, Jim mentioned to Mom that he was in need of a deck hand for the summer, and Mom quickly volunteered me.  I wasn’t present at the time, but the deal was struck.  I still had to interview with his wife, but if Alice passed on me, I had a job.

Jim and Alice lived in an apartment on 5th Avenue, near G Street; my appointment was for 7:00 that evening.  Alice was a nice woman, in her mid-40s, which at the time seemed a bit on the old side.  We talked for awhile, about this and that, nothing in particular, drank coffee and munched cookies; nothing was mentioned about the job, but during a pause in the conversation Jim asked if I could be ready by 10:00 the following morning.  I had a job for the summer.

The Jim Alice was still on blocks when we arrived in Seward; carpenters were just finishing up, having replaced several planks which had been strained in a gale the previous fall.  As I recall, the boat was in a cradle, mounted on skids; at low tide a tractor was used to move the cradle close to the water where Mother Nature and a rising tide did the rest.  The Jim Alice floated free.  The engine wasn’t yet running, so we towed the vessel to our slip with a small skiff and a 25 hp outboard.

The vessel was powered by a huge diesel engine; I believe it was a Washington 6 cylinder version, which to me seemed gigantic.  It stood nearly as tall as I, and was at least 6 feet long.  The battery system was 24 volts, and the generator on the engine was not working.

On deck we had a 24 volt gasoline powered generator which had been running for several hours trying to bring the batteries up, getting ready to start the diesel.  You had to be careful not to let the generator run out of fuel, for when it did, the generator became a dc motor, drawing power right back out of the batteries.

Down below I got a quick course on checking oil levels, and in the use of a hydrometer to check the batteries state of charge. Top side I was introduced to the bilge pump, a deck mounted diaphragm device with a long, shovel like handle for operation.  Over the next several days I would get to know this item quite well.  During the winter the boat had dried out, and even after being repaired, it continued to leak like a sieve, and would continue to do so until the wooden hull soaked up enough water to swell and tighten the planks. Operating the pump was an aerobic experience, but that pump sure moved a lot of water, which was a good thing for a lot of water continued to leak in.  A schedule was established and every few hours I pumped until the bilge was dry.  Gradually the leaks slowed, but pumping the bilge remained a twice daily operation for some time.

I was joined by 2 other deck hands, and we spent the next few days fixing and cleaning things while Jim returned to Anchorage in search of a new generator.  Upon his return we departed Seward for Valdez.

The trip to Valdez took us 2 full days; the first day started out with moderately rough, seas, and a heavy rain.  As we started to enter Prince William Sound, the seas and wind calmed, and were replaced by a thick fog and light drizzle. We continued to move north as the summer sun set leaving us with many hours of lingering twilight.

By the time we reached the south end of Knight Island the fog and failing daylight further reduced visibility.  My time was split between the bilge pump and lookout duties, and I was sore, tired and wet.

About half way up the east coast of Knight Island, Jim pulled into Snug Harbor, a well-protected and very quiet bay.  There were some ruinous building on shore, and a dilapidated pier which extended a hundred feet or so into the bay.  We anchored the Jim Alice, and I was given the job of watchman, staying up through the night, pumping the bilge when necessary, and looking out for who knows what.

By now it was after midnight,  the weather had settled, but a very light swell still made its way into our anchorage; we bobbed very gently, and the only sound I could hear came from a tumbling stream a little further up the inlet.

I pumped the bilge, walked around the deck, tried to read a book, looked at the scenery, listened to the stream, and fell fast asleep as the Jim Alice bobbed in the gentle swell.

It was when the bobbing suddenly stopped that I awoke.  The tide was rising and Jim Alice had drifted under an overhang which protruded from the pier.  I tried my best to push us free, but we were wedged solidly under a beam which appeared to be as big as a railroad tie.

I should have called Jim, but I didn’t want to admit I’d fallen asleep, so I looked for ways to free us.  Down below in the engine room I found a saw, and soon I was sitting on the beam, sawing away with all my might.  I was about a quarter of the way through the beam when Jim came out on deck.  “What in the hell is going on?”   He didn’t wait for a reply, ran to the engine room and returned with a long beam.   It was much smaller than the one I’d been trying to saw through, but it was long enough and strong enough to be a great pry bar.  With the gunnel as a fulcrum, we pried up on the pier, pushing the boat down, out and away from the beam that held us captive.

We shortened up on the anchor line, pulling us further away from the pier; Jim stayed up with me for the rest of the night, and nothing was said of the incident, but for me it was a valuable lesson learned, with no damage done except to my pride.

The rest of the trip into Valdez was without incident; the weather had cleared and it was beautiful, beautiful as only Prince William Sound can be on a sunny spring day.  There was still snow on many of the beaches, but with clumps of new growth breaking through.  The tips of evergreens glistened with a touch of light lime green, in contrast with the trees older foliage.  Melting snow fed countless small streams, and near one we passed a black bear feeding on seaweed.  He seemed to never notice us as we passed by, about a quarter mile from shore.

In summer, Old Valdez was a bustling town with a mixture of paved streets and muddy roads.  The talk was of fishing, hunting, and rain, never ending rain.  The nights were short; the taverns busy and work readily available.

The small boat harbor was near the center of town, and most everything was within a 15 minute walk.  Three days every week we ran tours between Valdez and the Columbia Glacier; those days were quite busy, preparation started several hours prior to departure. The boat was cleaned and re-cleaned till Captain Jim was satisfied, no streaks on the windows, no smudges on the deck.  Ice chests were filled, lunches made, and all items properly stowed.

Round trip to the glacier took around 6 hours; then after we returned there was at least another 2 hours of cleaning, buffing, and polishing (Longer if a passenger had gotten seasick in the head.)  The routine was the same for each cruise day, and nearly every cruise day was followed by a day of rest, relaxation and personal chores.

It was on an off day, about a month into the season, when this routine changed dramatically.  A light mist was falling, and fog rested a scant few inches above the water. Visibility was only slightly more the length of the boat, just a bit over 65 ft.  The repetitive sounding of a fog horn continued so long as to blend into the nothingness around us.

Captain Jim was in Anchorage, purchasing supplies and maintenance items, while his crew, Bob, John, and I read, napped, and generally let time slip away unnoticed.  Sometime in the late afternoon there was a banging on hull, accompanied with “Ahoy, Ahoy, anybody aboard”. It was the owner of the local cannery, and though I can’t recall his name, the urgency of his tone and actions are as clear in memory as they were at the time.

Fishing season was at its peak, and one of his tenders was disabled, drifting fully loaded somewhere in Port Valdez.  From radio conversations he had a general idea where they were, but unless they could be found, and towed to Valdez, he stood to lose tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.  His plea to us was to help find and save both his boat and its load of salmon.  If he lost the tender, he’d lose much of what was left of the fishing season.

Captain Jim couldn’t be reached, and none of the three of us had ever run the boat alone; I was the youngest at 16, and Bob, the oldest deck hand had yet to see 20.  Never the less, we agreed to do what we could, and look for the tender.

There wasn’t a breath of wind and the fog hung motionless, parting only as the boat pushed forward, through the gap in the breakwater and into the still of Valdez Arm.  By dead reckoning we ran, using only a compass, depth finder, chart and a clock.  The last known position for the tender was about 12 miles away, a bit more than 2 hours at the speed we were traveling.

I was on the helm, John stood watch on the bow, and with aid of compass and chart, Bob gave directions. Periodically we’d stop, shut down the engine, sound the fog horn and just listen.  During the 3rd or 4th stop we heard another horn, 5 short blasts; the marine signal for an emergency.

The fog started to thin as we headed in the general direction of the signal; an image appeared, hazy at first, then clearer, the tender was about a half mile from shore, overloaded with fish, and its aft deck already awash.

Trying not to make a wake, we came along side gently and passed over a small gasoline powered pump; it wasn’t much, but hopefully enough to keep the tender from sinking lower into the water.

With the pump finally running, and the tender in tow, we started the slow run back to Valdez.  I stood by the towing bit, ax in hand, with instructions to cut the tow line at the first sign the tender might be foundering.  Thankfully it was an uneventful trip.

None of our crew had ever been at the controls during docking, and the idea of docking while towing the tender was not an appealing one.  Together we decided we’d head the tender toward the cannery dock, and then loosen the tow line.  Hopefully the tender would coast close enough to get a line ashore, or a dingy would help pull them in.

There were a few more tense moments, but all worked as planned; the tender was tied up at the cannery, and were back in our slip.

All was calm, that is till Jim returned.

At first he was irate that we’d taken the Jim Alice out of port; we’d risked his boat, his business, his livelihood.  But then as he thought of what we’d done, anger settled.  We’d done just what he would have, there was no damage, and perhaps some more good could come from our actions.

Unbeknownst to us, by marine salvage laws Jim now owned a substantial portion of the tender and its cargo; he was in a very strong bargaining position with the cannery.

The following morning Jim met with the cannery owner; it was a congenial meeting but with business to tend to.  Tend to it they did, but in true Alaskan fashion, without lawyers, without threats, without ire; just 2 people working out a deal.  Jim didn’t go for broke, just an amount equal to a day’s charter.  The cannery owner agreed, and offered more: part time cannery jobs for Jim’s crew when we weren’t chartering.  We all came out winners.