By Mike Gordon; Miracle Mile Publishing Co., 2021; 336 pages; $27.50
For a city that has been home to at least a third of Alaska’s population, we’ve had surprisingly few memoirs written by longtime Anchorage residents. It’s an enormous hole in the state’s literature and might have something to do with the pipeline era, when, much like in Fairbanks, a lot of morally dubious behavior went on. And since some of those at the center of the melee have gone on to become respectable citizens, there are reasons for many to keep mum.
This isn’t a problem for Mike Gordon. The founder of Anchorage’s beloved Chilkoot Charlie’s nightclub, popularly known as Koot’s, had a front-row seat for the madness that swept over Alaska when oil was discovered and the newly minted state was suddenly awash in money and opportunity seekers. Gordon, who was already here and who isn’t the type to let an opportunity slip by, rode that mad wave from start to finish and was one of the few to come out on the other side still afloat. He did enough things right to accomplish this, but also made plenty of mistakes that easily could have sunk him. Over the course of two memoirs now, he’s spilled a story that captures the colorful reality of Alaska during the boom of the 1970s and the bust of the ’80s. And that’s just part of what he covers. He’s had a hell of a life.
In his first book, “Learning the Ropes,” Gordon told of his family’s move to Alaska in the ’50s, of growing up in Alaska, coming of age in Anchorage, opening Koot’s on the cusp of the pipeline rush, operating multiple business, failing at marriage twice, and nearly a third time, and climbing the highest peaks on all seven continents, summiting six while coming just 1,500 vertical feet shy of the top of Everest.
While that book was mostly an autobiography, his followup, “Dagnabit!” is more a case of filling in the blanks. Gordon has gathered a collection of essays discussing varied incidents in his life, arranging them in no particular order. Some are funny, some are heartbreaking, and many of them offer readers a chance to relive the years that changed Alaska forever.
Gordon opened Koot’s on Jan. 1, 1970 with his business partner at the time. A small operation in Anchorage’s Spenard district, they had no way of knowing that it would grow and morph into the massive nightclub it is today, but they had dreams. Having befriended popular Alaska radio host, poet, artist and all-around raconteur Ruben Gaines, Gordon swung a deal to name the club after Chilkoot Charlie, one of the characters Gaines had created for his radio show, and to emblazon Charlie’s image on the sign and logo. Thus a legend was born, a legend Gordon helped embellish by showing up for work in the evenings “wearing long-handled underwear, a fur-lined jock strap on the outside, Bunny boots, an Australian Outback hat, and a kazoo in my mouth.”
It was the ’70s. It was the pipeline.
A decade later, with oil flowing, “Alaska was on a roll,” Gordon writes. “Anything was possible and money was no object. Banks were lending money by the truckload and real estate developers with limitless credit were building shaky empires on Anchorage’s unstable, earthquake-prone soil ... No one had ever lost money investing in Anchorage real estate — and never would.”
Except they did, of course, after Saudi Arabia massively boosted oil production in 1985, driving down the price per barrel, and with it Alaska’s economy. “I suspect one of the only people turning a profit in Alaska was the one that owned the U-Haul franchise,” Gordon writes of the period when so many Alaskans fled. Gordon hung on by his fingernails and came out ahead, and many of the stories in this book take place against this backdrop.
While his first book was mostly about himself, here Gordon introduces readers to those he met along the way, especially the late Gaines, who he regards as a mentor. Gordon has included in this book a handful of writings by Gaines, and it’s a reminder that we need more of them in print. My personal favorite involves a little-known 1949 gold rush sparked by a false report. In Gaines’ telling, it becomes a very funny tale about the last surviving sourdoughs from the original gold rush making one last effort at obtaining the riches that had eluded them for decades, and to maybe relive their youths in the process. It ends as such tales usually do.
Gordon fills his pages with reminiscences of Alaskans both known and largely forgotten, of friends who came to visit and sometimes got more of an Alaska experience than they expected, of his own overseas travels, of quitting smoking and running marathons, of winning Playboy Magazine’s award for the nation’s best bar, and more.
Gordon also discusses darker events, including the 1992 killing of Wells Fargo agent Terrence Becker during an armed robbery of the Spenard Carrs. Chilkoot Charlie’s had been entered days earlier by the same perpetrators, who terrified the janitorial crew but left with nothing. Gordon eulogizes Becker briefly but movingly, and considers the injustice of his killer now being out of prison, and the unintended good fortune of his employees not being killed by the same man. It’s one of the most tightly written pieces in this book, and despite its brevity, or perhaps because of it, it’s emotionally difficult to read.
Most of the book is fun, however. Gordon is one of the few larger-than-life characters still standing in the long wake of Alaska’s turbulent early decades as a state. We need more books from those who lived through that era, because they’re fading away. They were pioneers of a different sort from the ones we generally think of, but they built the Alaska we know today. For those of us who make our homes in that Alaska, their stories are important.