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We Alaskans

My 50-year ride in the 49th state

  • Author: Geoff Kennedy
  • Updated: September 1, 2017
  • Published September 1, 2017

Fairbanks’ Chena River, alongside the sternwheeler Tanana Chief, is covered in fresh snow Oct. 20, 2016. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive)

My friend John Active has an expression for a white guy like me commemorating 50 years as an Alaska resident.


So, unlike lots of Fairbanksans I used to know, I'm not bragging about my longevity. Actually, when I landed in Fairbanks at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 1967, I never thought I would lack enough get-up-and-go to get up and go.

Nevertheless, I decided to celebrate the fact that fellow Alaskans never quite got around to throwing me out of the state by recounting a few memories and quips. Along the way, no doubt, I had a few laughs.

• Jesuit Father William Loyens set the tone when he announced to us Jesuit volunteers, "You don't have to be crazy to live in Alaska, but it helps."

Within a week, the Tanana and Chena rivers expanded their banks and flooded the city. After spending the night on the bleachers at Monroe High School while the basketball court rose several feet in places, I got evacuated to the University of Alaska campus and joined a sandbag brigade trying to protect the heating plant from the river.

After a week as refugee, we returned to find one local Catholic property spared from the floodwaters — the nuns' convent. So now I have the dubious distinction of sleeping several days in a convent. Turns out it was considered the best place in town for Princess Grace of Monaco and her entourage that was scheduled to visit Fairbanks for the centennial of the transfer of Alaska territory from Russia to the U.S.

But the princess got pregnant and canceled the trip. When we got to the convent, the signs were still set aside for the entourage members. So I got to sleep in a room set aside for some high muckety-muck who never reached Fairbanks. The Jesuit volunteers had to postpone their teaching duties to clean out the muck. I actually had a good time. After eight school years at St. Ephrem's in Brooklyn, New York, I never imagined nuns bringing me beer. This was several years after Vatican II, as I realized when nuns danced with priests at a party and, still in habits and heels, completed the 26-mile Equinox Marathon.

• Fairbanks broke me into the cold gradually. One day, I noticed kids in light jackets, no gloves, no hats at minus 20.

"Don't you kids have parkas?" I asked.

"Sure we do," one answered, "We put them on when it gets cold."

Fairbanksans looked down their noses at Anchorage people who didn't have minus-50 temperatures to deal with and therefore did not live in the real Alaska. Guys not only bragged about how long they lived in Alaska but also how cold it got where they lived. The champs were guys who lived on Badger Road between Fairbanks and North Pole. If you told the guys it got to minus 65 at your place, someone would sneer and brag his place got down to minus 70.

• I had a part-time gig at the CBS radio affiliate on Sunday nights. My job was to answer the phone for both the radio and television stations. In 1977, Alaska started catching television signals from satellites so Alaskans could watch some network television the same day that other Americans did. The first attempts failed. When Fairbanks awaited the "60 Minutes" same-day broadcast, they got nothing but loud white noise. So, at precisely 7 p.m., the switchboard would light up. I'd answer "Broadcast Center" and the callers would promptly exclaim, "()&@#$%^&*()P^%##$%^&." Then I would thank them for calling and assure them that the engineers were working on the problem. This went on for three consecutive weeks. By the fourth week, I would answer the phone with a pre-emptive strike. I would start by thanking the callers and assuring them the engineers were working assiduously on the problem.

After listening to my rehearsed spiel, one caller wondered out loud, "Is this a recording?"

At this point, I'd lost patience and gave in to temptation. "Yes, it is."

Then I heard in a voice speaking away from the phone, "How do they do that?"

• On the 25th anniversary of the Sputnik launch, I moved to Anchorage. One day, a fellow employee at the CBS affiliate asked me where I "came up here" from. I told him I didn't come "up here;" I came down here from Fairbanks.

"Fairbanks, ugh," He said. "I wouldn't live there. The summers are too hot."

Now, that's what I call a switch.

• In Anchorage, I learned to appreciate columnist Mike Doogan and cartoonist Peter Dunlap-Shohl. My favorite Dooganism was that you can tell who are the true Alaskans; they're the ones who spend their winters in Hawaii. My favorite Dunlap-Shohl cartoon featured a little kid wiggling away from his mother who was trying to take him to Santa Claus.

"Santa Schmanta," the kid cries, "I want to sit on Ted Stevens' lap."

• I once took my oldest niece and her family, visiting from Long Island in New York, to see the Byron Glacier in Portage. She looked at the mountain and asked if "they" come out every night and clean the glacier. A decade later, I read about an April Fool's magazine published by Juneau wit Jeff Brown. Brown's magazine included an interview with a guy who makes a living cleaning glaciers. Brown also concocted a fake ad for an Anchorage restaurant he called the "Turnagain Arm Pit." Turns out there are two of them.

The former Turnagain House restaurant transitions from brown to blue in April 2016 in advance of re-opening as Turnagain Arm Pit BBQ in Indian. The barbecue restaurant is located at Mile 103 on the Seward Highway. (Erik Hill / ADN archive 2016)

• As the Alaska economy tanked in the late 1980s, I looked to rural Alaska to find work and landed a job in Kotzebue. Former Fairbanks reporter and Kotzebue College professor John Creed provided my boss and me with some journalism training. When I came back from an assigned story, he asked how to spell the name of a news source. I told him I didn't check because in radio, we care about pronunciation, not spelling.

John called me an "airhead." I took it as a compliment.

• I lived in Kotzebue during the "melting of the ice curtain." Delegations from Alaska and Russia visited each other. Borough Mayor Chuck Greene hosted the mayor of a Russian Far East city, who got excited at Chuck's gun collection and asked to have his picture taken with one of Chuck's rifles.

To improve international relations, Willie Hensley offered to help the mayor win re-election. Hensley offered to endorse the mayor if that would help. If it didn't, Hensley offered to endorse the mayor's opponent.

Sophie Ferguson was less excited about international diplomacy than Mayor Greene. "Every time (the Russians) come over here," she said, "we have to go over there. The trouble is it's colder over there than it is here. Couldn't our country improve its relations with say, Australia?"

• The ice curtain between Russia and the United States thawed enough that when Gambell walrus hunters were reported missing, then-Gov. Steve Cowper got permission to send an Alaska National Guard plane along the coast of the Soviet Far East. I got to go on this junket.

As the plane flew over Little Diomede Island, I could see for myself the truth of what Sarah Palin would tell the country 20 years later — you really can see Russia from Alaska. The plane flew so low along the Soviet coast, I could actually see people from the plane. I told the pilot I could see a guy waving at me. I guess the pilot still saw things from the Cold War perspective. "He wasn't waving," the pilot said. "He was giving you the finger."

• On Good Friday 1989, I flew into Anchorage to spend Easter with the woman I loved. Before I left I brought along a nice little story about how the Kotzebue National Guard found a way to finance their armory. When I brought the tape to the Alaska Public Radio, I did not get an enthusiastic reception. I later found out why. Turns out Gov. Steve Cowper announced he would not seek another term. And there was something about an oil spill in Prince William Sound.

• As lame duck governor, Cowper decided to visit the Northwest Arctic Borough — not to look for votes but to show his respect to the people of the region. Part of that included showing up in a National Guard uniform, he said, rather than gnarly jeans. After a stay in the Nullagvik Hotel in Kotzebue, he headed to the airport in a car driven by his plainclothes, distinguished-looking state trooper bodyguard. A local tourist reportedly watched him do that and then remarked, "I heard the governor of Alaska is in town, but why is he driving that soldier around?"

• The Exxon Valdez spill provided me with another example of satire/reality. Art Buchwald once lampooned Spiro Agnew for hitting a man with a tennis ball. Buchwald "complained" the media were unfair to Agnew because they failed to point out the number of times he didn't hit anyone with a tennis ball. Some 20 years later, then-Anchorage state Sen. Jan Faiks complained that tankers made 800 trips through Prince William Sound without one spill, but do you think the media would mention that? Nooooooooooo.

Oil lingers around the Exxon Valdez after it hit Blight Reef in Prince William Sound in March 1989. (Erik Hill / ADN archive 1989)

• Around election day, Alaska and other American media like to encourage people to vote by pointing to elections decided by one vote. Once, two Alaska state house candidates finished in a dead heat and a coin toss determined the winner. While in Kotzebue I had the distinction of casting the deciding vote in a local election. I think I can safely say this is not the conventional your-vote-can-make-the-difference story.

As the weekend before the local elections began, no one had signed up for Regional School Board seats D and E. So Diane Howarth and Jim Barefoot called the local radio station with announcements that they were running as write-in candidates. I was glad to have candidates to vote for. But in the voting booth, my plans hit a snag. I forgot to note which candidate was running for which seat and I had no way to find out. So I guessed. Diane Howarth has a D in her name and there's an E in Barefoot.

After the polls closed I went to the borough building for the vote count. Diane Howarth easily won Seat D. She didn't need my vote. But Jim Barefoot did. He won by one vote. Diane Howarth came within one vote — mine — of winning two school board seats. When I asked then-Borough Attorney Dick Ehrlich what he would have done if she'd won two school board seats, Ehrlich did not share my amusement. "That's a hypothetical situation," he snapped.

• After leaving Kotzebue and before moving to Bethel, I spent some seven months in Anchorage. I was lucky to fly to Alaska's largest city from Kotzebue because in late 1989, Mount Redoubt exploded and caused a near-fatal crash of an international flight. For months, the volcano continued dropping ash west of the mountain. One day, the wind changed and, on the first day of Lent, the volcano left a deposit on Anchorage. I watched in downtown Anchorage when a man left a noon mass at Holy Family Cathedral with the familiar ashes on his forehead and proceeded to his car, which also had ash on its forehead.

• I was fortunate to go through a very belated (yeah, I'm slow) midlife crisis in Bethel. The weather is lousy, there's no scenery, but the people are wonderful. And my bosses, Rhonda McBride and John McDonald, were great.

Life in rural Alaska took an odd twist. KYUK hired another reporter — not from the Lower 48, as is typical, but from Bethel. I didn't have to tutor Jonathan in pronouncing the names of the 56 or so villages in the region. So he surprised me one day by asking how to say the name of one community. I wondered what was going on until he pointed to it. After going through some brief disbelief, I told him it's pronounced Val-DEEZ.

• Rhonda doesn't like this anecdote, but I can resist anything but temptation. Rhonda arrived in Bethel from broadcasting jobs in Nevada and Idaho and it took her a while to get used to rural Alaska broadcasting. She showed a lot of flexibility but insisted on one way to act professionally. She didn't mind that Yup'ik staff did not wear jackets and ties on Yup'ik news but didn't want writing on their shirts to distract viewers from the news they were watching. Yup'ik reporter Adolph Lewis didn't see things that way and griped that the new news director was some kind of Nazi. Rhonda doesn't like being reminded she may be the only person in Alaska called a Nazi by someone named Adolph.

In 1994, I accepted a news director job at KMXT in Kodiak. But not before my Bethel dentist waved his finger at me and warned, "You be careful down there. It's America, you know."

It was a pleasant stay, but Kodiak was a lot less eventful than Bethel. I noticed what a nice little town it was when I looked at the police blotter.

The week before Christmas, normally a slow news time, I got a wild hair and decided to list the complaints to the police department in the form of the "Twelve Days of Christmas" song and have a couple of staffers sing the story. It would go something like this: On the first day of the week, Kodiak police had 10 litterers, 9 jaywalkers, etc. down to the end, "and a bounced check and a loose dog." A volunteer DJ who worked at the police department called and said her co-workers really enjoyed the piece. But one Kodiak listener complained — apparently for real — that I was making fun of her town.

The city of Kodiak as seen from Pillar Mountain on Tuesday, July 21, 2015. (Marc Lester / ADN archive)

• In 1995, I decided to move back to Anchorage, where I could manage my rental property in town. I rented an apartment to a couple named Shawn Phillips and Shawn Phillips. Once I went by to pick up the rent and Shawn Phillips couldn't find his checkbook. No problem. He picked up his wife's checkbook and signed "Shawn Phillips." The check didn't bounce.

• As in Fairbanks, I found myself called into jury duty again and again. Once in Anchorage, I got called for grand jury. That means instead of being on one case, I get to listen to prosecutors convince me they have enough evidence to go to trial. One day, an assistant district attorney named Gene Murphy apologized to us jurors that he didn't have his paperwork with him. So, of course, one juror pointed out this was an example of Murphy's Law. I guess it could have been worse. If prominent Fairbanks attorney Charlie Cole suffered from a similar accident, would that be an example of Cole's Law?

Actually, though, my weirdest jury duty story comes from Fairbanks. When one of my supervisors found out I'd been called to duty and potentially disrupted the workforce, he took me aside and told me how to get of out duty. "Here's what you do," he said. "Just keep repeating 'Hang the bastard. Hang the bastard.' Of course, with your luck, it'll be a paternity suit."

I gave him the expected chuckle, went to the courthouse the next day and was selected as a juror in, you guessed it, a paternity suit.

• When I got a job at the public radio network in Anchorage, I was able to keep up with some of my colleagues who still worked in the Bush. One, Tom Bunger, worked at KNOM in Nome. Part of his job was sending local stories to the Associated Press in Anchorage. Once, the AP staffer complained when Tom reported an accident victim's condition was stable. The staffer wanted Tom to dig for more details, which hospital staffers seldom provide. A couple of weeks went by and Tom called in another story. When the AP staffer asked Tom how he was, Tom got revenge. "Stable," he said.

• Tom liked to poke fun at Tony Knowles, then governor of Alaska. When Knowles promised to "put the honey bucket in the museum," Tom asked why the governor wanted to gut all the plumbing.

One April, Tom visited Anchorage for the annual reporters' convention. We arranged to have coffee together at a bookstore in the Dimond Center. As we were conversing, in walked the governor and Susan Knowles, who exchanged pleasantries with Tom and me before sitting down at a nearby table. After about 20 minutes, Susan Knowles got up and asked a woman behind the counter who told her down the hall and to the right. Tom smirked, leaned over to me and whispered, "Tell her to use the honey bucket in the museum."

• Broadcasters supply some of my favorite quips.

Pete Van Nort at KIAK in Fairbanks, when asked if he ever experienced déjà vu, responded, "Boy, you can say that again."

• Jerry Fears, who worked for both KFAR and KIAK, used to produce five-minute-radio programs consisting of nothing but puns. Jerry once proclaimed a politician's biggest asset is his lie-ability. A black man, Jerry also showed a lot of compassion for Ku Klux Klan members, who used to terrorize his hometown in Indiana. "Even the Ku Klux Klan," Jerry said, "have their cross to bear."

• When he worked at Channel 11 in Anchorage, I once asked Steve Mac Donald to pass me the yellow pages of the phone book. Steve refused because "That's classified material."

• I once asked Yup'ik Peter Twitchell of Bethel if he knew any foreign languages. "Yeah," he said, "English."

• Perhaps the champion quipper is John Active, who weighed in on a Catholic controversy. "If God wanted women to become priests, she would have said so."

Active once visited a local Catholic church to see a Mass celebrated by local Samoan Catholics. John said he enjoyed the ceremony but was disappointed because he was told Sam Owens would be there.

I once told John I am a Native too, a Native of the Planet Earth. "No, you're not, "he replied. "You're from Uranus."

• Ed Wassell doesn't remember saying "No one believes the devil exists … except the Satan worshippers." But I do.

• A local priest had trouble completing his dissertation for his post-graduate degree, but couldn't please his mentor, who kept responding to his efforts with lots of red ink. I asked him which was worse —  working on his dissertation or undergoing a root canal during his colonoscopy. He responded immediately the latter was preferable because he could use anesthesia.

• Chester Seveck of Kotzebue liked to say he retired after a long career as a reindeer herder and took a job as a tour guide — "same job." I'm pretty sure Chester and his wife once appeared on a quiz show with Groucho Marx. Chester had a part in the "Ice Palace" movie about the time I watched the Groucho show. Groucho asked if Eskimos trade wives. "Yeah," said his Eskimo guest," just like Hollywood." If nothing else, that sounds like Chester.

• My favorite John Paul Jones quote comes not from the Revolutionary War hero but from the Bethel resident who once told a statewide teleconference on subsistence that these days you need two boats, "One for the moose and the other for the lawyers and the paperwork."

• A young Miss World Eskimo Indian Olympics contestant once told the audience she would provide a genuine Athabascan moose call. She paused a moment and then exclaimed, "Here, moosie, moosie, moosie."

• While in Bethel, I got several invitations to a party from a guy named J.R. and kept getting caught in scheduling conflicts. Finally, when my roommate told me he was going to J.R.'s house, I decided this time I would go for sure. Turns out it was not a party, but a Rosh Hashanah celebration held several months late because the traditional Jewish celebration happened during moose-hunting season. Barbara Angaiak introduced me to her daughter, "the Jew'pik." I apologized profusely for the intrusion, but Harold Sparck, the resident Bethel fish guru, stuck a yarmulke on my head and invited me to participate. "Catholic, Jewish," he shrugged his shoulders. "Guilt is guilt."

• Khaled Zayad, an ethnic Palestinian who grew up in Jordan before moving to Alaska, was once asked if his interpretation of Islam allowed his wife to drive a car in Anchorage. He smirked, "Yeah, but she has to drive her car five lengths behind mine."

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Khaled suffered through constant accusations he was involved in terrorism. His anxiety may have peaked when a Muslim buddy called him to ask for a ride. Sure, Khaled said, where is his friend? His friend said in Arabic that he was at JBER, which he referred to as the base. Oops. One Arabic translation of "the base" is al-Qaida.

Khaled did his patriotic thing one year before visiting Washington, D.C., for the Fourth of July convention of American Muslims. He told me he was disappointed in the trip, not because of the heat and humidity but because his fellow American-Muslims kept asking him about Sarah Palin.

• I will not repeat all the quips concocted by Jay Hammond, because longtime Alaskans probably remember them. I'll stick to my favorite, which may not be as famous as his others: "I would have endorsed motherhood and apple pie, but I didn't want to offend Planned Parenthood and Weight Watchers."

Jay Hammond, shown near his Lake Clark home June 5, 1985. (Erik Hill / ADN archive)

• The trite expression goes "Only in Alaska." I think my two favorite coincidences may apply here.

In the summer of 1969, my mother and her youngest granddaughter, age 9 at the time, visited me in Alaska. I took them on a quick tourist trip to the Arctic, which included stops in Nome and Kotzebue. While in Nome, we were told to find our own place for lunch, because the tour guide didn't want to offend any locals with recommendations. We came to a place that had no walls except for the Visqueen flapping loudly in the Norton Sound wind.

Inside, the restaurant had a number of plain — no tablecloths — tables. We sat down at one of them. After a while, an elderly man with a couple of days' beard, and a demeanor reminiscent of what New Yorkers used to call a Bowery bum, shuffled over to our table and asked what we would like. When we asked for a menu, he looked surprised, went away and came back with a worn envelope, which he turned over to reveal the food available and the prices. We then placed our "order" and the man shuffled out to the kitchen. After 15 minutes, he returned with generous portions of the food we'd ordered. Another 10 minutes went by and a man in a chef's hat came out and asked if the food was satisfactory. The 9-year-old said the food was as good as you could get at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

I wondered if a guy in far-off Nome had heard of the New York hotel when the chef responded in an obvious Noo Yawk accent, "Ya know, my deah; you're absolutely right. I oughta know; I used to woik theah." Then he pulled out a copy of a story from the Nome Nugget that read, "Famous Waldorf Astoria chef moves to Nome." I looked at him and I looked at her and then looked at both of them again. I wondered if those two had rehearsed the entire episode.

**Some 40 years later, I watched the Turner Classic Movies series of films portraying Native Americans. When I was a kid, Jeff Chandler, Burt Lancaster and other white actors played the part of American Indians. The series progressed over several days to the 1990s when Native Americans got cast as Native Americans. About three or four consecutive movies featured Alaskan Irene Bedard. One of them, called "Naturally Native," depicted efforts by three sisters in Los Angeles to use Native plants to create beauty products for a cottage industry.

A couple of months later, author Lael Morgan brought a Ray Mala film festival to Anchorage in honor of the Inupiaq who actually played Native Americans before a lot of the white guys did. The first day of the festival, the Anchorage Daily News did a feature story about Harold Sparck's triplet daughters who were starting a cottage industry featuring native Alaska plants they would turn into beauty products. I thought about life following art. After the Mala movie at Bear Tooth Theatrepub, as I waited around for the bus that would take me home, I saw in front of me a young woman who looked quite a bit like Irene Bedard. I wondered what to do next — tap the woman on the back and ask if she is Irene Bedard? I decided I didn't have the effrontery to do that. But then I got an idea.

"Irene," I called in a loud but not shouting voice. The woman turned around and turned out to be none other than Irene Bedard. I advised her to get a copy of the day's paper and read a news story so much like one of her movies. When she asked which one, I told her "Naturally Native." I saw her the next day at another Mala movie, this one at UAA. She agreed with me this was one weird coincidence.

I had quite a bit of fun on my 50-year ride. Health permitting, I hope to stick around some more.

Geoff Kennedy lives in Anchorage with two Alascats.