Not long after moving to Alaska, my mother almost called the cops on me. She had her hand on the phone when she saw me crossing the dirt yard of the Hale Apartments where we lived. Such was my transgression that I have little doubt the Anchorage cops would have enlisted the Territorial Police and the U.S. Marshals in hunting me down.
“I almost called the police!” she yelled when she ran outdoors and caught me. In a desperate effort to change the subject, I presented her with a salmon to cook for dinner, but the fish served only to increase her ire.
I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the instigator in that incident. I’m pretty sure it was Ralph, who was so far my only friend in Anchorage. Ralph was a year older and had lived in the U-shaped rows of apartments at the corner of 5th and Gambell longer. Ralph knew the lay of the land.
I didn’t. I was only six years old.
But I’m ahead of myself. In order to get into trouble, I had to get to Alaska from Detroit, and that’s where I’ll start this tale.
My mother had long wanted to live in Alaska, so when her brother-in-law Ross was transferred to Anchorage by the CAA (predecessor of the FAA), I’m sure she heard the news with much chagrin. In the spring of the following year, word from her sister Agnes that the railroad was hiring if they could be in Alaska by June 15, 1948, had Mom and Dad packing up for the move north. Whether it was by letter or a “by appointment” phone call made from the Alaska Communications System office in the Federal Building on Fifth Avenue, I really don’t know.
All I got out of the whole deal was that I was going to live in an igloo. That’s what all the kids in my first grade class told me. I’d given most of them chicken pox, but that’s beside the point.
A long journey by train to Chicago was followed by an even longer flight in a DC-4 (I think). We landed in Canada to refuel, then Fairbanks, and then at Elmendorf AFB. A large box of chocolates, a farewell gift from relatives, accompanied us on the trip.
I’m positive it wasn’t the chocolates that made me sick shortly after our plane departed Chicago because I’ve eaten many chocolates since then and never gotten sick. Instead, it was the first indication that I suffered from an extreme propensity to motion sickness. Too bad for the other passengers on that airplane.
Next thing I knew, we moved into a tiny one bedroom apartment with Ross and Agnes and my dad went to work for the railroad.
That’s where I met Ralph, the only other kid even close to my age, and we became fast friends. As I said earlier, Ralph was older by a year and had lived there longer, so it must have been his idea to wander over to 3rd Avenue and down the steep, wooded bank to Ship Creek and the Alaska Railroad yards.
I don’t remember how far we walked toward Cook Inlet, or how long we were gone. Time means nothing when you’re having an adventure, but it must have been a fair distance because we had to have been walking the clay tidal banks of Ship Creek where we acquired the fish. Actually, if I recall correctly, we were on the way home when said fish presented itself to us.
That fish, a bright red, snaggle-toothed humpy, was well on its way to becoming one with the muck in which we’d found it lying fins up, so to speak. All I knew was this was one of the prized salmon I’d heard the grown-ups talk about. Ralph and I decided to take it home and tell them we’d caught it.
I suppose the state of the fish’s deterioration had much to do with my mother’s reaction when she spotted me after many hours of unauthorized absence. Never mind that she had been having visions of me lost forever or maybe even dead, she now had a daughter reeking of decomposing fish.
Ralph and I must have been sentenced to yard confinement after that, because our subsequent adventures consisted of tying a string to a tin can and tossing the can onto the dirt road that was 5th Avenue. Late afternoon was prime time for traffic coming from the direction of Merrill Field, so that’s when we tossed our can as far as the string would reach and waited for a vehicle to run over it and smash it flat.
We spent a lot of hours choking in the dust or dodging mud puddle splashes, but no vehicle ever ran over the can.
In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing there weren’t any railroad tracks close by, as I’m sure Ralph and I would have put pennies on the tracks to see if the train would derail.
Sadly, my life of crime with my partner Ralph was cut short that summer when SOMEBODY set our apartment on fire and we had to move.
I had nothing to do with that. And neither did Ralph.