A friend of my youth was in Fairbanks last week. So was I. We had not seen each other in 40 years and spent three days reminiscing, explaining, confessing.
My friend, who last saw Fairbanks in the spring of 1968, found himself cast as Rip Van Winkle. The city on the banks of the Chena he remembered has largely disappeared. So have most of those who called it home. I don't know how many times I responded to questions about someone we knew with, "He died." or "She is dead." As for the teenage boys who became best buds in the early Sixties, they survive only in memories, photographs, a few news stories and police archives.
Ghosts, however, were plentiful. We encountered them wherever we went. At the houses we grew up in, struggling to assert our independence from our parents. Lathrop High School, where we received an education, or at least enough education to obtain diplomas. The lot on Second Avenue where a pinball parlor stood.
Sportland offered advanced study in human dynamics through its "library" of men's magazines and dirty books presided over by a flamboyant gay clerk who entertained us -- and unnerved us -- with his suggestive behavior and lewd comments. I remember the men's magazines better than the books. The covers frequently featured full-page drawings depicting American GIs in combat during World War II -- Sgt. Rock deep in the jungle standing on an alligator, a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, one arm around a scantily clad blonde, the other cradling a burp gun as he blazed away at swarming Japanese fiends.
The Fairbanks in which we came of age had a split personality.
The self-styled Golden Heart City strived to be recognized as an all-American city by replicating the institutions common in cities Outside -- the Chamber of Commerce, civic groups, churches, affinity clubs, ball teams, the university. The strivers who created these institutions led a middle-class life -- sometimes, of course, at 50 below zero.
Before World War II, Fairbanks had been a mining community and regional hub, but after the war, it was a military community. Military spending was the bedrock of the economy and for merchants, GI payday was the most important day of the month.
The presence of hundreds of young airmen and soldiers -- inexperienced, unmarried, far from home -- created another Fairbanks, a world of bars, nightclubs, bawdy houses, gambling dens, pinball emporiums and greasy spoons. This was not the America the national magazines celebrated when describing the "gracious living" accompanying postwar prosperity.
Many of the stories my friend and I told during his visit involved underage drinking and the quest for alcohol. My friend remembered a Eureka moment at Lathrop while reading his economics textbook. The book contained a photograph of a California driver's license. He cut out the photo, subjected it to minor cosmetic surgery and, presto, had a laminated California driver's license -- a fake ID that allowed him to enter liquor stores. In the book, the license was in the name of John A. Doe. My friend, using his mother's typewriter, changed the name to John A. Doeker. (This guy could think on his feet. When his mother insisted his breath smelled of alcohol, he explained that he put Listerine on his head to kill dandruff.)
The kids my visitor and I ran with were bright, imaginative and inquisitive. But they relished the role of outsiders. They weren't going to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, businessmen. They didn't know what they were going to do -- but whatever they did, they were going to do it in their own way. They studied, but they didn't study what the school system demanded. They tuned in their transistor radios to the 1960 Democratic Convention that nominated John F. Kennedy but wouldn't pick up their American Government textbook. In retrospect, it doesn't surprise me that one of my pals, in a farewell comment in my high school yearbook, admonished me to "dig" Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger and Voltaire.
As I have aged, thinking about the past puts me in mind of old home movies. When you watch movies of your family, your neighbors or even strangers, your eyes become fixed on a vanished world in which, with frequency, people are talking, laughing, mugging for the camera. But there is no sound. They are in another zone that you can see but not hear -- or touch. They are completely walled off from you. Watching these movies, I wish I could find a door in the wall and join yesterday's people. I can't. All I have is fleeting images on a screen.
As I parted with my friend, I knew he was having a memorable visit. And I was certain he could take comfort in one thing the passage of time, painful as it may be, has done for him. He will never be prosecuted for faking his John A. Doeker -- the statute of limitations has run out.
Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
commentBy MICHAEL CAREY