Northwest to Alaska
Chapter Seven

by Peter S. Oleson

When Eric left that fall, my nautical ambitions seemed to leave with him. My old friend Howard Pendell wanted a better boat, and we sold him the "Audace". Howard was the first person that I ever met who held the same reverence for the Music that I did. We went through some contortions to listen to any and all illicit GD recordings that we could find, and we managed to find a lot, even back then. I remember one crazy night when Howard and I went to Andy the bodyman's trailer because Andy had a stereo. He wasn't home, but Howard and I had a mission with a higher priority than ownership and made ourselves comfortable for an evening of good music, including a killer 13+ minute Good Lovin' that went into a jam at double time and then had to slow way, way down so Pigpen could finish the song. A wonderful evening. A lot of the recordings we came across included sets by the New Riders. I was particularly smitten with some of the sets that Bobby played with the Riders (I can't work no more at the sawmill.). Howard came from down in California somewhere. His dad was a minister. I knew that passing the boat along to Howard would ensure that the boat was treated properly, as it deserved.

Diane and I moved from the boat into a pickup camper and bought an old Ford pickup to haul it around. The 8 foot camper had about as much useable room as the boat had, it wasn't bad, there were quite a few camping areas around Ketchikan and no one really cared if you just parked on the street for the night.

Steve C. had moved to Anchorage that spring before Eric came up. In the fall after Eric left, he sent out a message to me: he had found the girl of his dreams and he needed a best man. I was to be that man. I didn't like airplanes, at least the big ones. I had flown to Metlakatla to work on cars many times in "bush pilot" type planes, and hadn't had any problems, except that day that Dale decided to give Dago a thrill without warning me. We were coming back from Metlakatla and I was in the co-pilots seat. Dale must have been rambunctious that day. First off, he let me fly the plane most of the way to Ketchikan. We had a fellow from Metlakatla aboard, with a television set that needed attention. Dago crawled up on top of the TV set. Dale noticed Dago atop the TV and took the controls and said "watch the dog."

As I turned to look at Dago, Dale dived the plane. Dago's feet left the top of the TV and he appeared to float in midair. So did my stomach. I was totally freaked. As if that were not enough, Dale went into a full power climb and Dago fell, as did my stomach. I never wanted out of an airplane so badly until I flew up to Anchorage for Steve's wedding.

Dale died in a plane crash a few years later. Of all the pilots that I flew with back in those years, he was the best. But they are all gone now. Flying in Alaska is still a chancy thing, as it was then. The wind can blow so hard, and as we have seen, it can come up so quickly.

Diane and I flew out of Ketchikan on a 727, I think. Isn't that the one with two engines in the tail? Anyway, the jet we were on had two tail engines. Before we had gotten as far as Sitka, one of the engines quit. We made an emergency landing at Sitka. The runway in Sitka is very short and built on fill out in the bay. As soon as we touched the strip, the pilot kicked on the jet brakes and laid on the wheel brakes. Everyone was assured that we were in no danger. Yeah, right.

We were then informed that we would be staying in Sitka until the dead engine could be started. We were all given vouchers and told that we could use them in either the bar or the restaurant. Naturally, everyone headed for the bar. We all sat in the bar for a few hours until it was announced that the airlines was flying up a mechanic from Seattle to fix the engine and we would be in Sitka until that happened.. We were given more vouchers.

Most of us spent a while in the restaurant eating steak and seafood that Alaska Airlines paid for. Then we went back to the bar. We spent four or five more hours in the bar. Nobody ran out of vouchers. If you did, and went to the AK desk, you could get more. The mechanic arrived and spent a while buried in the port engine. He never did fix it, but he got it started. The pilot came into the barroom and asked if any one wanted to try to get to Anchorage. "We have both engines started and are certain that they will both keep running. However, if the port engine quits again, we will not be able to start it from the cockpit. I am taking the plane on into Anchorage, does anyone want to come along?"

Naturally, after spending an entire day in the bar, we all were gung-ho. The flight into Anchorage was uneventful, although quite rowdy.

The wedding proceeded as normally as most do. I was swept up in a whirlwind of events and expected to keep up my end, among people I didn't know. It was kind of bizarre. Everything went all right until it was time for us to leave. Neither of us wanted to get on another airplane.

Diane and I decided to hitchhike to Haines and catch a ferry back to Ketchikan. By this time, the Alaska Pipeline was under construction, so there was quite a bit of traffic on the highways in the Interior. It was the beginning of October and we had very little trouble getting as far as Glenallen. It was evening when we got there, and traffic was getting a little sparse. We checked at the local motel and I just couldn't bring myself to pay $60 just to sleep in a bed. The guy at the gas station said we could sleep in the back of a customers station wagon for $20, but I figured that wouldn't be any warmer than the ground. Cold ground was our bed that night. We had sleeping bags and put on all the clothes that we had brought along. There was no snow on the ground yet, but it was damned cold. I discovered that night that you can get so cold that you don't even shiver anymore. You just get these body waves that go from foot to head and back down again. After a few hours of that, you kind of get to enjoy riding those waves. I think I was hypothermic, I certainly wasn't thinking rationally. We made it through the night, but that was the end of heading through hundreds of miles of Canadian wilderness to get to Haines.

We hitchhiked into Fairbanks the next day and bought plane tickets from Fairbanks to Ketchikan, with a stop in Anchorage. As we flew from Fairbanks south to Anchorage, we were on the left side of the plane. I had a window seat and was studying the huge mountains over which we were flying. The pilot came on the intercom and told us to look out of the right side windows for a cloudless view of Mt. McKinley. I walked over to an empty window seat and looked down, but the mountain wasn't under us, it was beside us. In fact, the summit was considerably higher than we were flying. It was a very impressive pile of rock. I had seen it from the ground before, but it's so far from the nearest road that you just don't seem to get the perspective that you do from the air. I figured that a couple mountains that big could keep the world spinning just by keeping it out of balance.

Back at Ketchikan, we settled into the old working groove. It was at work one day during that early winter that Otto came into the shop and grabbed me. I thought he was leading me back to check out one of his jobs, but Otto led me out the shop door and across the street to the bar in the Hotel there. I had been aware that he was planning on retiring soon, but had no idea what his plans were, except to head back home to Oregon. Apparently, he had been at the bar for a while before he came and got me. The bartender handed him a fresh shot and a beer as well as one for me, without either of us saying anything.

Otto handed me an envelope and flicked his hand at me a couple times, so I knew he wanted me to read it. There were real tears running down his face by this time, so I knew some kind of bad shit was going down in his life. Reading the letter, it became clear that he had been sending some of his paycheck down to his daughter every payday and she had bought him a nice little trailer and got it all set up in her back yard. There was trouble, however, with her new husband. He didn't want "that drunken old bastard" living in his yard and leeching off him the rest of his "miserable life". I cursed the cold hearted son of a bitch silently as I finished the letter. What a slap in the face. Otto spoke for the first time then. He had already bought his ticket to fly down there and was leaving the next Friday. He had already shipped all his stuff down to his daughter.

Somebody didn't get their car fixed that day. Otto and I cursed his son in law. We cursed all sons in law. We drank more whiskey and cursed all women in general for letting men run their lives. We cursed the miserable state of Oregon and every sorry bastard that lived there. We drank more whiskey and cursed the miserable state of Alaska, that siren that sings such a sweet song and delivers death, despair and hopelessness. I didn't know what else I could do for poor Otto, except sit there and drink and curse with him. So that is what I did.

Otto left the next Friday as planned. He worked all his life to get a plane ticket and a key to a little trailer in a back yard in Oregon. I don't know what happened when he got down to his little bit of Paradise, I have always hoped that things worked out for him, but Otto wasn't one to do much writing, so I never heard. Happy trails, Otto.

Diane and I decided that we had been in Alaska long enough that we needed to head back to Wisconsin for Christmas to see the family. No airplanes for me, though. We took the ferry to Prince Rupert and went to Wisconsin by Greyhound. Long time on the road. I have always been an avid reader, so the trip was a chance to get some serious uninterrupted reading done. It didn't take long to finish what I brought, so I was reduced to reading what was for sale in the bus stations. Somehow, every time I looked for a book, I seemed to find another Philip K. Dick, Kerouak, or Vonnegut book that I hadn't read. So it worked out pretty well for me. You run into different types of people on a bus than you do on an airplane. People without a lot of money. Though most of them were all right, we ran into a few that we made sure to steer clear of.

It was pretty strange being back home after three years. Things change so quickly when you're young, and stay so much the same when you start to age. Everyone had grown up and they were doing different things. My little sister had a baby named Jeremy, Dad had added a den and a bedroom for my brother Otis in the steel building he had built as a garage and workshop. Otis was happy, he could stumble in at all hours of the night without fear of waking anyone. We had an informal family portrait taken. We saw as many people as we could in two weeks, then it was back in the bus for the ride back to Prince Rupert.

Back in Ketchikan, we lived in the camper with few expenses. We saved all the money we could, and we had sacked away the money that Howard had paid us for the boat. I was on a test drive one day, and as the highway runs along the water, I had a pretty good view of the Airport across the Narrows, even though it was heavily overcast and the ceiling was pretty low. I saw an Alaska Airlines jet coming down through the overcast, and it appeared to me that he was coming in pretty long on the runway. It was another plane with the two tail engines. The pilot touched down about mid runway and must have decided to touch and go because he didn't have enough room to stop. He touched all right, but as he pulled the front of the plane up and hit the throttle, he ran out of runway before he could get airborne.

By that time I had pulled over to the side of the road and sat there with my mouth hanging open as the plane fell off the end of the runway and broke into three pieces. There was no huge fireball, but I saw fire flash through the passenger area, as people jumped, slid, and did whatever they could to get out of the plane. Incredibly, only one passenger died, although many were injured and taken by helicopter across the Narrows to the hospital. That was the day I swore I would never get on an airplane voluntarily again.

I truly enjoyed living in Ketchikan, especially when the sun came out for a few days. There may not be a more beautiful place on earth than Southeast Alaska. It was the infernal rain that led us to decide to head further north. Having to wear rubber boots most of the year does not do wonders for the health of one's feet. Strange things grow on feet that seldom get dry. Maybe it would have been more tolerable there if we had lived in a real house, but we didn't have any money, and renting has always seemed to me like throwing your money into someone else's bank account. So when the summer of 1976 rolled around, Diane and I looked at Ketchikan for the last time. We rolled the old camper into the State Ferry, along with Andy the bodyman in his truck, and lit out for parts northward and unknown.

Peter S. Oleson

From [poleson@ptialaska.net]