25. KETCHIKAN, ALASKA 1964
The rest of the springtime couldn’t go by fast enough. I took to my old habit of scrounging dumpsters for soda pop bottles to redeem, set up a lemonade stand on warm weekends and even helped out with some of the neighbor’s yard work to make some extra money. I tried to keep the amount I’d saved secret from my folks in case they were setting something aside also and I didn’t want them to know how much I had.
I gave notice to my paper route that I’d be quitting my deliveries and was glad to put that behind me. Then I wrote to Steve to tell him all the things I was looking forward to doing and thanking my aunt and uncle for letting me come. I knew my uncle Rodger, who my younger brother was named after, was a pilot with Coastal Ellis Airlines and flew the bush all over Alaska’s panhandle. I hoped I might get a chance to ride aboard one of his flights.
I made sure to pack a few of my Beatles 45s and my transistor radio along with the rest of my clothes and toiletries. I had no idea if I’d be able to play them or not but felt incomplete without them. William tried to talk me out of it: “You won’t need those and you’ll probably lose or break them”, he had warned. I knew he just wanted them for himself. Soon, I was all ready with fresh batteries, a cheap Brownie camera I got at St. Vincent de Paul and my favorite plastic water gun.
Mom and dad drove me to Sea-Tac Airport along with my brothers. I was nervous but excited about flying in a plane for the first time. My Mom had her hands full with my younger brothers and my dad was in a hurry to make sure I got to my gate in plenty of time. He found a parking spot and hustled me out and up the ramp to check my bag before I got a chance to hug my Mom goodbye. She told me years later how she was so angry with him that he bought her a big bouquet of white roses to make up for his impatient thoughtlessness.
The stewardess was alerted to my situation of flying alone and made me feel welcome with fresh orange juice and some pretzels. “Where you headin’ Sonny?” said the fat businessman sitting in the aisle seat cracking open his miniature Johnny Walker Red. I’d been told not to talk to strangers but was feeling more grown up already. “I’m gonna stay with family in Ketchikan for the summer”, I answered. “Fine town, fine town”, he repeated himself. “Make sure you try cathchin’ one of them big king salmons while yer there. But be careful cuz they might just pull yer arms plumb off the fishin’ pole”.
“Okay”, I laughed nervously, as the Boeing 707 roared to life and began to taxi away from the jet way. Dad had told me to make sure and write home and slipped me an extra twenty dollars. “Wow! Thanks Dad”, and I’d given him a big hug. It was a rare cloudless day and the skyline of Seattle and the majestic Olympic Mountain Range were a stupendous sight as we ascended to our cruising altitude. From my window seat I could make out tiny ships that I knew were actually huge freighters and the jagged coastline and offshore islands reminded me of pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.
The stewardess kept coming around to make sure I was all right and to refill my orange juice. I’d had a couple comic books with me but couldn’t get enough of looking out the window and too soon the pilot’s voice on the PA system announced that we were beginning our descent, to return to our seats and extinguish all cigarettes.
My aisle mate stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray embedded in the arm of his seat and folded back his newspaper. “Have a terrific time kid”, he said, getting my attention. “Don’t let Dzunukwa catch you though”. “Who?” I exclaimed. “It’s an old Indian legend”, he said. “The wild woman of the forest. You can tell who she is on a totem pole because of her lips that look like she whistling. Her noise is the wind you hear through the trees and she sometimes steals children to take to her lair and eats ‘em up!” “Don’t scare him” said the stewardess and then looked over at me. “It’s only a story.”
It was a lot cloudier in Ketchikan and the landing was as exciting as the takeoff had been. Nobody had told me that we weren’t landing at Ketchikan but on Annette Island. The businessman gave me a wink when he got up to grab his carry-on. “Keep clam” he said and lumbered down the staircase that had been brought up to the open door.
The stewardess had asked me to stay behind while the other passengers de-planed and explained how a jet can’t fly directly into Ketchikan. “Because the town is perched along a steep hillside, we’ve landed on the island so passengers are required to transfer to a smaller amphibious plane that can pull up to a dock.” She made sure that I had all my stuff together and walked me down the stairs. On the tarmac, I spied my uncle Rodg right away. He was beaming and gave me a big hug and grabbed my bags as they came off the conveyor belt issuing from the plane’s underbelly.
“How was the trip?” he smiled as we headed towards the small terminal. “Great!” I shouted over the noise of a takeoff on the next airstrip over. I noticed he was wearing an official uniform and asked him about it. “I’m captain on the next leg of your journey, mate”, he said and gave me a three-fingered salute. “Really?” “Yeah, C’mon, this way”, he said with a jerk of his head.
I followed close on his heels and we walked past some private planes around the other side of the terminal. “There she is,” he said proudly. I stood fast looking at a gleaming silver fuselage with two enormous engines on the wings above the cabin. “It’s a Grumman Goose”, explained Rodg. “See how it’s got pontoons under the wings and a sloped belly so that it can land in water?” “That is the coolest!” I said. “I’ll let you sit up in the co-pilot’s seat”, said Rodger with a twinkle in his eye. “If the co-pilot doesn’t show up you can fly up there with me”. I scrambled up the ladder into the belly of the plane and set down my gear in one of the compartments. I heard Rodger’s voice, “Up here, this way”.
Through the open door to the pilot’s cabin I could see Rodger sitting in the captain’s seat. “Here, sit in the co-pilot’s seat and I’ll give you the run-through”, he said as I came up between the seats. I gently sat in the way-too-big-for-me seat and looked at all the dials, monitors and switches. “It’s not that tough”, Rodger tried to assure me. “You control the pitch with this lever and the other one determines the speed. The more you push forward, the faster she goes”.
I felt the grips on the handles and the steering wheel and imagined what it would like to fly this thing and then land it in the water. “Co-pilot Dennis Harrington reporting for duty”, came a voice from the doorway below. “Be with you in a second”, said Rodg. “Looks like you’re relieved”, he said and unhooked my belt. I grabbed the window seat and held on for as thrilling a ride as any amusement park ride.
After splashdown we taxied toward the pier where I could see Aunt Pauline and Steve waving from the dock. “That was amazing!” I said to Rodg as he escorted me up the gangway. Once the obligatory hugs all around, “Great to see ya, how’s everybody? Good flight?” I had a chance to really look around. The endless green forests covering vast mountainsides with blue waves below and ever-changing skies overhead.
Steve looked the same as before; thin but alert, his sandy-colored hair matching his freckled cheeks. “Hey Man, you’re gonna love it here”, he said carrying my bags upstairs in the old family home on Washington Street. I didn’t ask which room was my dad’s. “I found out where the best fireworks are being sold. I hope you brought a little money”, Steve said under his breath.
The next six weeks were the most amazing time I’d ever had. We trolled for fish from the back of their small cabin cruiser, “The Yukon”, and I caught my first real fish, a ten-pound king salmon. Rodger and Pauline had an isolated cabin in a secluded bay north of Ketchikan and Steve explained how there had been an Indian village on the site years ago. “At low tide, we can search for stone artifacts”, he said and described the process: “Look for small reddish rocks. They stand out among all the grayish ones the easiest.”
He showed me a couple stone lamps he had found that were sitting on the cabin’s windowsill. “What the Indians would do”, began Rodg, “They’d heat up the rock in a fire and drip a couple drops of water into the center of it so it would fracture. They’d keep heating it and re-fracturing it until there was a pit in the stone and then they’d fill it with fish or whale oil and light a wick of animal skin that was set down into it.”
In no time I had discovered two broken lamps and one that was completely intact. “Nice beachcombing!” Steve had said and then called me over to where he was. “Check this out”, he said proudly. He held a hand-sized piece of flattened rock that was notched at one side and had a blunted point on the other. “I’m pretty sure this is an ax head. See how the notch would hold the lashings for a handle?” It looked like a pretty ordinary rock to me but sure enough, when Uncle Rodger examined it he concurred with Steve’s analysis.
The small town of Saxman, just south of Ketchikan, had a large park with dozens of native totem poles. Steve described how they were stories that could be read and monuments to different clans. One pole featured a stovetop-hatted Abraham Lincoln and I asked Steve about it. “When Lincoln freed the slaves, the Indians had to give up their slaves too”, he said. The wind blew through the trees and I thought of the Indian legend of Dzunukwa and hoped I wouldn’t get caught.
At the other end of town was Totem Bight, a large park with a replica of a native village on the grounds. The dynamic forms and the sophistication of the designs inspired me to an appreciation of “savage” art forms and I would seek out these creations from then on.
It was exciting to be away from home for the first time and sparked a wanderlust that would propel me to adventures around the United States and later the world for years to come. Even dad’s promised trip to Disneyland later that summer wasn’t nearly as thrilling as hiking on Deer Mountain, shagging foul balls at the small stadium outside town and exploring caves, trails and coves on my own.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved Disneyland and seeing the missions and the coastline of California was astounding. Trouble was, I had to share it with all my brothers and do what my Dad said at all times. We drove the whole way, camped in the national parks and even crossed the border into Tijuana, Mexico. Dad had a fascination with the Corrida and drew and painted bullfighting scenes often. He was determined to see the spectacle and we spent a memorable afternoon of music, mayhem and blood.