Nineteen months ago, copier serviceman Bill Guernsey was in the middle of a trip to several villages along the Kuskokwim River when his plane crashed into the river ice on takeoff from Upper Kalskag. Thankfully, Guernsey was alive, but he was seriously hurt.
Seven ribs were fractured, and that's not all. "My back was broken in three places," he recalled. "My neck was whacked out and my scalp was ripped from eyebrow to ear.
"I was in the hospital for 10 days. I begged them to let me out."
But Guernsey managed to turn tragedy to triumph by using his ample recovery time to focus on the fine details of what's become one of the builder/tinkerer's signature projects -- a 16-foot-long bright red rocket on wheels that stands out in the quiet mid-Hillside Anchorage neighborhood where he lives. It's not something one expects to see nestled up between a huge spruce tree and a two-story gray house.
Though it looks more like a 1950s comic book character's ride, this is Guernsey's camper. Actually, the Atomic Camper is solar-powered and includes a full bathroom, kitchen and shower. It's Guernsey's home away from home. During summer weekends, he and wife Becky take it camping in Seward, Portage and other spots around Southcentral Alaska.
Guernsey built the camper over the course of two years. That's not two years of weekends and after work. "About six hours a day, six days a week. Whatever that works out to," Guernsey said. And in an odd way, his injuries helped.
"A lot of the people notice the detail in there. I did a lot of that when I was in recovery because it's just small bench work that you could sit or stand and just make little things," he said. "You can work on the details that you wouldn't otherwise bother with."
Guernsey has always been a builder, a maker. It's in his DNA. His grandfather on one side was a carpenter and cabinet builder; the grandfather on the other side was a woodworker and steelworker. Their credo: "Build it, make it, do it."
His list of major projects includes two airplanes, one restored car, two other campers, "most of the furniture in my house" and many steampunk functional art pieces.
The Atomic Camper doubles as something of a record of Guernsey's life, or at least his formative years. The walls are decorated with magazine photographs and covers from 1950s and '60s. Popular Mechanics covers are the most numerous and include the August 1959 cover story "Race to the Moon: Are the Russians ahead?" Other clips from magazines of that era offer advice: "You can't ration BRAINS!" and "How to Buy a 1957 Room Air Conditioner."
On his camper's theme, Guernsey says, "Everything was atomic when I was growing up. It's the Cold War. The time of the nuclear age and the rockets and the bombs. Everything that came out was going to be powered by nuclear science. Atomic is like the turbo of today."
Achieving the atomic look required massive time in Guernsey's garage-based workshop. The egg shape is built like a small airplane or a canoe, on a skeleton of ribs covered with bent wood lathes, and then coated with papier-mache and glass fiber. Other materials range from copper to aluminum to plywood to old toaster cords. There's even a breaker panel from a boat and robots. Cabinet doors are adorned with collector-item metal robots sliced in two. Pieces from an old Erector Set contribute to the design for the panel of another cabinet door. It's all a part of the nostalgic trip back in time for the creator: "Takes you down memory lane every now and then."
Finishing touches are where Guernsey's craftsmanship shines. Exotic woods like jatoba and tigerwood join the domestics of holly, walnut, birch and ash in details of the interior. Guernsey collected the decorative materials for years -- much of it bought at the Habitat For Humanity ReStore or donations from people following with project.
"People there (at the ReStore) are really sweet," he said. "They see that stuff, and a lot of the times they'll set it aside for me. It's nice to buy stuff there because a lot of time you'll wreck it or break it trying to make it work in the way it wasn't meant to work. I like buying stuff there because you don't feel bad when you break a $5 latch but feel terrible when you break a $150 latch. That gets old really fast."
What's next for Guernsey?
"I want to build another camper -- a 24-foot zeppelin. When I do it, I'll do a lot differently -- it'll be a cylinder. I'll stretch it. It will be longer and bigger. I want it to look like it's manufactured. And it will have an infrared camera -- to see the bear in the dark."
After all, you never know what lurks beyond the next turn -- a predator or a rocket ship?
Anne Raup is the Alaska Dispatch News photo editor. Contact her at araup(at)adn.com
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