Creek Street, Ketchikan

                                             She’s Got a Ticket to Ride…

No wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.

Mock Turtle, Alice in Wonderland

                There’s a whole lot of places in Alaska you can’t get to unless you fly. Period.  No roads. I had never flown in a commercial airplane before I was hired by the Alaska Education Association. My first airline ticket took me to Juneau to attend the third inauguration of Bill Egan as Governor of Alaska.  My second ticket provided passage to Ketchikan, where I was to train folks in the philosophy and technique of public relations.  I didn’t know until the second trip that, in Alaska, just because you purchased a ticket for certain location, it didn’t mean that the airline would actually take you there.

                Alaska Airlines overflew Ketchikan that day landing on the airstrip outside the village of Metlakatla on Annette Island.  I was riding on The Little Jet Who Couldn’t, or Wouldn’t, fly any further. To get to my final destination, there was no choice but to board an odd-looking craft with wings and engines mounted high across top of its body. We were to fly the 25 miles back to Ketchikan located on the other side of Revillagigedo Channel. I climbed into the eight-passenger oddity and sat next to the pilot who strapped himself in and suggested I do likewise. He flipped several switches on a well-worn control panel, straightened out his map, and prepared for takeoff. Up we went. I was fascinated and handled the trip nicely back toward Ketchikan. 

                Soon the pilot pointed toward the water and announced over the engine’s roar that we were about to land.  My heart gurgled deep in my chest as we dropped toward earth, smacked the water, and plowed through the waves, splashing sheets of water up and over the windows. I thought for sure we had become a submarine.   But no, the sounds of the engine died down, the water calmed and there we were puttering up to the dock like a huge, happy duck.  

                “Quack,” I managed to whisper to myself, and climbed out of the plane.

                Later I learned that I had been riding in a Grumman Goose, an amphibious commuter plane. Throughout World War II, the Coast Guard and other air forces used them as a troop transports. In Metlakatla, this particular Goose was on the ground but somewhere in mid-air it had turned itself into a boat with wings.

     

                I always liked Ketchikan, especially Creek Street, the former red light district built on pilings.  On my first visit, Creek Street was being re-imaged as a community of gift shops.  Workmen were re-modeling, scrubbing and painting the century-old houses, some known for the trap-doors in their floors which opened to allow men to climb up from boats below for an evening of pleasure.

                 My father had been stationed in Ketchikan with the Coast Guard immediately following World War II.  I felt certain that he would have enjoyed the stories of Creek Street’s early days and would not have approved of the current efforts to spruce it up.  I would visit Creek Street frequently from 1999 through 2007, this time as a union representative for the Alaska Nurses Association (AaNA). The gift shops and mini-museums, as well as the refurbished New York Hotel, were my favorite haunts during my AaNA days.

    ~~

                The National Education Association was very dedicated to, ah, education.  Each year, a flier arrived outlining the staff training programs available in negotiations, grievance processing and arbitration, crisis management, and so forth. Over time, I took advantage of just about every program offered and my job description and my involvement in the world around me began to expand.

                No longer just a purveyor of press releases and in-house newsletters, I now researched and wrote negotiations proposals and occasionally served as negotiations spokesperson or as a member of a mediation panel. I flew to the defense of teachers throughout my section of the state when they found themselves in trouble with community or school board. 

                We flew, that is, when airlines and floatplanes were available. Sometimes it wasn’t that simple.

                For instance, there was no road to Whittier and no functioning airstrip. But there were teachers there and I was their representative. To reach the little Prince William Sound community, one had to catch a train at Portage and lumber through two mountain tunnels to hook up with the folks who lived on the other side.  Once, both the school district negotiator and the teacher negotiator (me) missed the train, and the city sent the town’s ambulance through the tunnel to retrieve us. Today the train shares the tunnel with a road, on a rotating time schedule. 

                In the 1970s, virtually the entire town – people, governmental services, the movies, everything – was housed in one, stand-alone high rise building left over from the military.  Most of the town’s less than two hundred permanent residents still reside in Begich Towers.  Snowfall in Whittier averaged twenty feet a year, for sure deeper than most children were tall. The city dug a tunnel from Begich Towers to the school just behind the building.  Teachers and students walked back and forth underground during heavy snow months.  The snow was also a barrier for folks with pets. The city found it difficult to get people to consistently take their dogs outside. The stairwells would thus become a community nuisance and topic for city council discussions.  All this I learned from the handful of teachers who also resided in Begich Towers with their families and pets.

    ~~

                I remember flying out to Bethel in southwest Alaska one year in the deep of winter to check on teachers and their housing.  Bethel was the hub city of the Lower Kuskokwim School District. There was a severe lack of teacher housing in those days and what little housing was available through the school district was closely monitored by the administration.  There was little privacy and the teachers complained that the district sent inspectors into their homes while they were at school to, among other things, “check for evidence of pets”, which were forbidden.  A dish or bowl left on the floor, for instance, was a sure sign of a pet hidden somewhere on the premises.

                I had met with the teachers and heard their concerns.  While they were busy teaching, I was left on my own.  I really wanted to take the opportunity to see some of the area and the superintendent of schools offered to drive me to the nearby villages of Napakiak and Napaskiak.  I climbed into his truck and off we went – past an old, crumbling general store perched at the edge of the Kuskokwim River. 

                Up and over the riverbank we went – and down onto the ice. Thump. Vehicle tracks criss-crossed the wide, flat expanse of white. We turned right, drove down river, and bounced up and over the embankment to visit each community.  In the winter, when the river ice thickened, transportation between villages was thus greatly enhanced.  In the summer, such travel required a boat or a strong pair of legs.

    ~~

                The Adak Naval Station was a remote and barren outpost in the middle of the Aleutian Chain, about 1,200 miles from Anchorage. A community of about 5,000 Navy personnel and their families, Adak had schools and teachers.  The teachers were members of the far-flung District One Education Association and were part of my assignment.

                I only visited Adak once and it was a cold and windy adventure. Teachers were concerned about the government’s plans to close the facility. My most vivid memory, however, involved being blown out of teacher’s truck by an icy blast of unexpected wind.  I had not yet closed the passenger door before the teacher opened his and – whoosh -- the resulting draft and blast left me on my knees in the snow. Cold, wet, and happy, the meeting with the teachers went fine. Adak was down-sized over the next few years and officially closed as a military installation in 1997.

    ~~

                Back in gloriously metropolitan Anchorage, we had roads, but those roads stretched many miles between communities. Visits to schools required a little planning. It took forty-five minutes to an hour to drive north to visit the teachers of the Matanuska-Susitna Education Association, and about three hours to drive south to visit with the teachers of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association.  There were, and are, no other directions in which to drive.  Sometimes, one took a puddle-jumper over Cook Inlet from Anchorage to the Kenai Municipal Airport which cut two or so hours off the trip. The little commuter airplanes were cold and noisy, but by this time, that was pretty much expected.

                On the ground, a good part of my job was to encourage the Peninsula teachers to become active in the political party of their choice.  My party, by this time, had become the Democratic Party.

    ~~

                In 1970, I was a Republican precinct committeewoman.  By 1971, I was an active member of the Democratic Women’s Club and the Bartlett Democratic Club.  My perspective on life was changing fast. Political converts are a lot like religious converts – a bit fanatical.  By 1972, I was a member of the Southcentral Democratic Committee, and chair of the Southcentral Democrats by 1975.  Later, I was elected chair of the Alaska Democratic Party.

                My parents had generally voted Republican and discussed their reasons in my presence for selecting one candidate over another, but they had certainly not been activists.  Bob Anderson majored in political science in college and was the step-son of a well-known Republican congressman from Illinois.  I knew the difference between a conservative and a moderate Republican and favored the positions of the moderates, but when I cast my first vote for President, it was for conservative Barry Goldwater. I thought he’d end the war in Vietnam, no pussy-footing around.

                With this history, I knew I was in a strange place when I first showed up to work for the teachers’ association. I recognized right off that neither my parents nor my young husband would approve of work stoppages, or grape boycotts, or half of the positions these folks had on the issues of the day.  But I was willing to listen and to read. I was a long way away from home and conversion came easily.  The new life and new politics were not so easy on my family or my marriage.

                It was all very “heady” and would have been difficult to resist, even if I had considered resistance as an option. Senators and congressmen stopped by the office just to chat, hoping to wrangle an association endorsement.  I was impressed and felt part of something that could really make an impact.

                Our little organization took on United States President Richard Nixon, for instance, and won!  Nixon had imposed a wage-price freeze in the middle of our contract negotiations, so our Anchorage-based attorney John Strachan sued the federal government.  When the decision came down in our favor, I was hooked.

                I felt like a member of the Dirty Half-Dozen, riding off to defend “the widows and children” against the Forces of Evil.  It was scary, this taking responsibility for other people’s life and career.  But the tight, cold ball in the gut was relieved often enough by a burst of euphoria and joyful abandonment when – We Won!

                In 1975, a youngish, unknown candidate for President of the United States arrived in Anchorage for an impromptu visit.  As the new head of the area Democrats, I was able to arrange for Jimmy Carter to have a flight tour of the Matanuska Valley before escorting him to a fund-raising event that evening.  My son loves to remember that after the sight-seeing, Carter dressed for the party at our house.  I borrowed a friend’s Mercedes and off we went.

                I was later asked to manage the Carter Campaign in Alaska, both in 1976 and 1980.  We did not deliver Alaska for Carter, but did make some interesting and influential friends while trying.  And I say “we” because my welcoming committee of one had, indeed, swelled to a largish number of teacher supporters.

                An organizer’s job is to put the client, in this case the teacher, in the spotlight – and scurry back into the shadows herself.  I was pretty good at getting teachers elected and selected to political posts, and even better at getting our positions including in party platforms.  My downfall was that I just couldn’t stay in the shadows and my public presence – especially when I was elected state party chair -- was an irritant to a number of association leaders, most but not all, being Republicans.  They questioned if what I was doing was legal, and if not, they’d like to see me hang.

                The union conducted two rather extensive hearings concerning my political involvement.  Fortunately, I had been careful to use my personal vacation for political activities, and had a pretty good paper trail indicating that what I was doing fell within legal guidelines and had been fully authorized by my supervisor, Bob Van Houte.

                Some Old Owl once said, “If you ain’t got someone mad at you, you ain’t doing nothin’”, and followed up with, “You can judge the quality of a person by the quality of his or her enemies.”

                During this period, some very quality people didn’t like me very much.

                I was twice exonerated of any wrong doing, but still was pleased to step back from the fray after the 1982 elections and focus on other aspects of my existence. 

                Divorced in 1972, I had spent the next five years single, for the most part working side by side with Chuck O’Connell, the new deputy executive secretary for the NEA/Alaska Anchorage office.  Chuck and I eventually decided that we possessed complimentary workaholic personalities and, in keeping with our travel schedules, had exchanged wedding vows on May 24, 1977, in a small plane while circling Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.  We had combined and expanded our households which now included his three children, my son, and two baby girls of our own.  Add the family to our jobs and political activities, and you are -- always late for something.