The vast majority of the clearest and most intense memories I have of my childhood occurred within a three-month period when I was almost eleven years old.
It was the summer of 1967 in Fairbanks, Alaska. In the "lower 48" hippies congregated for the "Summer of Love" in San Francisco. Vietnam, Flower Power, protests and race riots were in the national news. But in isolated Fairbanks by many measures it was still the 1950's. I had just recently seen for the first time a man with long hair. My family lived in a white frame house and our car had tail fins. We kids could go unsupervised just about anywhere we wanted and our parents didn't worry.
|Me next to our house, 1966|
(Photo by John Poling)
There were seasonal rituals that marked the progression of summer. During "breakup," when runoff from melting snow formed puddles and small streams everywhere, we raced little stick "boats" down the hills. When the soil had drained and the threat of freezes was past, we helped my mother plant flowers and a vegetable garden and marveled at the rapid growth and large size of turnips and cabbages nourished under the "midnight sun." On the summer solstice we tried to stay up all night to witness the midnight twilight of the longest day of the year, when it never really gets dark. We had sleepovers. Sometimes on weekends The Olsons would pack a picnic and go grayling fishing in wilderness streams out the gravel highways north of town towards Circle City, Circle Hot Springs, Livengood, and along the Chatanika, Tanana and Yukon rivers.
My friend Van was a year older and had gotten me started in archery the summer before. He and his mom had given me an old bow and my parents had purchased a set of target arrows. After appropriate safety talks from my parents, I was allowed to go with Van across the campus to the Patty Building and the university physical education department, which had set up straw targets in the outdoor ice hockey rink. We used metal-tipped arrows and there was no supervision. This kind of play would not be allowed today due to safety and insurance concerns, but back then that's what we did. And while officially we were only supposed to shoot at the targets, being kids occasionally we sneaked into the nearby woods on the way home to shoot arrows at anything else that caught our attention. We never shot at or hurt anything living, but we were kids, alone in the woods with bows and arrows. It was exciting to fantasize that danger was always a possibility.
Shooting was big in my crowd. My friend Doug had a BB gun. I was not allowed one, but that did not keep me from accompanying Doug and his dog into the woods to shoot. The grooviest thing was to go to the dump to "shoot rats." Back then, the university's dump was just that -- a clearing at the end of a dirt road in an isolated part of the campus with a ramp up to an elevated gravel pad in the center, from which garbage was hurled, spilling onto the bare ground and into the trees around it. It stunk and sometimes it was smoky. We weren't supposed to be there, but the risk of getting caught or running into a bear was what made it exciting. We never shot a rat, and probably only ever saw one or two. Most of our time was spent lining up bottles and cans to shoot at, pretending we were driving the junked cars, and poking sticks into piles of icky, smoldering junk.
Adding to the excitement, 1967 was the centennial of the purchase of Alaska by the U.S. from Russia, and a summer-long party and fair was getting underway in Fairbanks. We were expecting some excitement that summer, but we were not prepared for the surprises that were about to shock us and change lives.
Text and images copyright 2017 by Marc Olson