The time has come, my little friends, to talk of other things / Of shoes and ships   

            and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings / And why the sea is boiling hot, and                

            whether pigs have wings / Calloo, Callay, come run away / With the cabbages     

            and kings.      -- Walrus, Alice in Wonderland

                                             A Flatlander In Wonderland

                Bob Anderson and I drove across country and up the Alaska Highway in July1967; he, a brand new second lieutenant in the United States Army, and me, three credits short of graduating from Southern Illinois University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Communications.  I was excited about the adventure, but a little put out about the three credits.  Bob’s orders were bound to delay my finishing my degree. 

                 I also worried that I might be pregnant as a result of our three-day layover, so to speak, in northern British Columbia.  The axle had broken on our trusty dinosaur of a car so we spent our third anniversary as guests of Toad River Lodge.  A bus passed through this wide spot in the road heading back toward Fort Nelson.  We asked the driver to pick up a dinosaur axle on his return trip and settled in to see whether or not this ordering procedure actually worked.

                I was a 22-year-old kid from the Midwestern flatlands, the suburban flatlands surrounding Chicago, to be more specific, having spent most of my life to date in southern Cook County, just a block or two from the Illinois-Indiana state line. Most of the fathers in my neighborhood worked in the steel mills of Hammond and Gary, Indiana, except for my dad who was a typographer (upscale printer) and my best friend’s dad who was a commercial artist.  They worked in Chicago.

                When I left for college, I moved as far away as possible from Chicago suburbia – but where I still could pay instate tuition.  Southern Illinois University (SIU) was in the heart of the state’s Little Egypt, a region between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers with town names like Cairo and Thebes. There were farms in Little Egypt but the land was not near as flat and fertile as the land up north. There was also coal, which no doubt played some part in the naming of Carbondale, the specific location of SIU. 

                The area was beautiful, especially to a kid from the wilds of urban Illinois. Giant City State Park was a mini-natural wonder located in the Shawnee National Forest and just a few minutes drive from Carbondale. Then there was nearby Crab Orchard Lake, a 6,965-acre man-made body of water created when the Big Muddy River was damned in the 1930s. Congress decided to not only maintain recreational facilities there, but also to lease lakeside land to factories. The fish, as a result, were beginning to glow green.

                It was with this background, that Lt. Anderson and I headed north to Alaska. We’d seen landscape.  Beautiful and invigorating landscape.  But we’d never experienced anything like western America or the Canadian Rockies.

                Endless expanses of untouched valleys, canyons and mountaintops. Sheep with curling horns nibbled alongside the roads. Tiny wildflowers surviving in spite of the sheep, or perhaps, because of them. The slopes carpeted with summer foliage, and above the tree line, outcroppings of primeval, jagged rock wearing swashes of white against an iridescent blue sky. Our eyes followed the contour of the valley floors, where from the vantage point of the narrow, dusty Alcan Highway, rivers appeared as thin, meandering blue lines across a grand canvas of living, breathing greens and great ridges of muted browns and reds. 

                And then the axle breaks.

                Toad River for three days. Bob chatted with most of the fourteen permanent residents. The two of us explored the land behind the lodge, spotted a moose, wandered down the unpaved highway, checked out the electric generator in the shed, and skittled back to the room.  It was our third anniversary, remember. Pregnant.  I knew I was pregnant. And I needed those three credits.

                The bus driver did, indeed, bring us an axle on his return trip and the good mechanic of Toad River fixed up the rolling dinosaur. We were on the road again headed for White Horse, Yukon Territory. When we pulled in that evening, there were no rooms available.  Big convention in town. We spent the night in our mosquito-infested car. Morning came very early and we gladly returned to the road, windows open, flushing out the remaining nasty little insects – dust be damned.

                The border crossing into Alaska was easy, I suppose because of Bob’s military identification – and the fact that border crossings between the United States and Canada were always easy forty years ago. The road improved dramatically on the Alaska side.  We drove through Tok Junction, turned south at the Tok Cutoff, and headed toward Glennallen and the Glenn Highway. At a place called Summit, we stopped to view four mountain ranges: the Alaska, the Chugach, the Talkeetnas, and the Wrangells.  Continuing on, we crawled along the narrow, winding roadway carved high into the mountainside overlooking the upper Matanuska River Valley.  Paved or not, the road was treacherous. It was dangerous to gawk while driving the dinosaur, even with her new axle, so we’d pull over and gaze hungrily, then reluctantly move on.

                Second Lieutenant Anderson and his almost-journalist, but definitely pregnant wife, eventually pulled into the state’s largest city, Anchorage, where Bob would be stationed at nearby Fort Richardson and the journalist would continue to fret about being short three credits. 

                It was probably the second lieutenant who, a few days later, discovered Anchorage Community College and brought home a copy of the summer schedule.  There it was -- an intensive three credit course – five hours a day for three weeks.  Topic:  Teaching Social Studies.  I quickly enrolled and learned it was being taught at West High School, about a half mile trek up a slope from our rented duplex in the Inlet View subdivision.  Each morning, I would climb the hill, vomit alongside the path, find the drinking fountain when I reached the school, and slip down the hallway for class. 

                The instructor was an understanding man.  I completed the class, grabbed my skinny, little transcript with three credits of “B”, and sent the precious document back to Carbondale.  The diploma itself would arrive months later, but I knew I was a graduate, and now could settle down to check out the job opportunities in this new state of Alaska.

                Never having seen a snow machine, I applied for and was hired as the first editor of the Alaska Snowmobiler newspaper insert.  I think we put out three issues before the season ended. Next up was a night editor’s position for the town’s morning newspaper. When a day job materialized, I moved over to writing 30- and 60-second advertising spots for KFQD, the state’s oldest radio station. 

                One night come March, the first day of spring actually, I awoke with the definite knowledge that new life was about to emerge.  Elmendorf Air Force Hospital conveniently took me in, and a day later, we brought home our baby boy. 

                Weeks passed, and life settled into manageable routine. I began to think of work again. It was the lieutenant, now a first lieutenant, who came home with the interesting news that the town’s afternoon newspaper had an opening for a reporter.  He had learned this from another officer whose wife had held the position.  The officer was being transferred, and there would be a vacancy.

                Diploma in hand, I scheduled the interview. The Anchorage Daily Times had a special place in its corporate heart for both the military and military spouses and so I was hired.  My assignment included reading the morning report at the police department, editing the religion page, checking on issues and activities that fell under the heading of health and social services, and attending meetings of the Anchorage School Board.

                Like most young reporters, I loved the police beat and was thrilled to have the opportunity to cover a real live murder. Elmer Haub of Mendeltna Creek, population about 50, was convicted of killing his wife, cutting her up into manageable pieces, and burning her body in a nearby woods.  The newspaper photographer and I drove the 153 miles north from Anchorage to Mendeltna to interview neighbors and take pictures of the spot where locals believed Bonnie had been the subject of the amateur cremation.  Elmer and Bonnie were my only foray into “true crime” reporting.

                 It was the religion, health and social services, and education assignments that would mold my life and my career.

                After a year or two on the newspaper, I began receiving job offers.  One such offer was with the Anchorage School District.  They had an opening in their public relations department.  Another offer was with the Alaska Education Association, (the teachers’ union). They needed a communications specialist.  The union offered me $500 more a year than the school district, so I took the union job – never really reflecting on what that decision might mean to a relatively conservative kid who had just attended the Republican Party political caucuses.

                The Lord did give me an opportunity to change my mind. After rejecting the school district offer and accepting the position with the education association, the teachers withdrew their offer.  There was internal conflict as to whether the organization needed a public affairs staff person and Bob Van Houte, the chief executive, had several more months of lobbying to do before he was able to again offer me the position.

                I had already resigned from the newspaper and turned down the school district offer and I needed work. I found temporary employment for a few months, and in September received another call from Van Houte.  They were ready.  Could I come by for an interview?

                These were the days of protests and college campus riots.

                “We know you can write,” said one interviewer, “but could you burn a building?”

                “Well, perhaps not,” I offered, “But if I write well enough, we won’t have to.”

                They laughed.

                It had been a joke.

                Thank God.

                I got the job.

                I’d change my party affiliation later.

 

Click to Return to Index