Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Memoir: A Ten-Year-Old's Summer of Love, Part 2

In 1967, residents of Fairbanks, Alaska were anticipating a rocking and rolling summer.

It was not just The Summer of Love. More importantly in Alaska it was the one hundredth anniversary of the United States' purchase of Alaska from Russia, and a season-long celebration was planned. The Alaska Purchase Centennial Exposition (A-67), held at a specially-constructed fairground on the banks of the Chena River, was underway. A modernistic, circular exhibit and performance hall had been constructed and the old Yukon stern wheel riverboat Nenana, one of the last of its kind, had been floated into a special pond on the grounds. Cabins and historic buildings from the old days of Fairbanks had been moved onto the site to re-create an early gold rush town. Numerous other exhibits were built, and the area was surrounded by a raised berm, on which a narrow-gauge railroad train circled, giving rides and offering a view of the entire site.

Stan Zielinski's balloon (photo by Brian Wallace)
Stan Zielinski, an art professor at the university, flew his bright-red balloon over the town in the evenings, and we rushed out to watch when we heard the roar of the gas-fired burners that provided the hot air to float the ship.

We attended many events at the exposition and wondered at the old stern wheeler, antique cars and planes, train,  costumed characters and many activities that filled the event calendar. Vehicles with out-of-state and foreign license plates jammed the parking lot. Fairbanks probably had not been so busy since construction of the Alaska Highway and the military population boom during World War II.

July 10 was to be a special day for young people. The Turtles, at the time a top-40 pop sensation, were scheduled to perform at A-67. I am not sure, but it probably was the first time that such a popular group had been to Fairbanks at the top of their fame.

Meanwhile, from the day school let out I continued my normal summer activities, playing with friends, exploring the nearby woods, riding my bike, and goofing off.

Then, a little after 9:00AM on June 21, my friend Van (as he later told the story) was standing on the front porch of my house and about to knock on the door. He heard a rush of wings as all of the barn swallows nesting in the eaves of the house left their nests in an instant. A second or so later, Van heard the rattling of the house windows, noticed nearby trees shaking and felt the earth tremble under his feet. Startled, he neglected to knock, and ran home as fast as he could.

Inside the house as Van climbed our steps, my brother, sister, mother and I were in the kitchen cleaning up after breakfast. At the first moment of shaking, I recall thinking that someone must have crashed a car into our house. But the rumbling and rattling didn't stop. The side-to-side and rolling motion intensified, and things began to fall and break around us. There was no time to go outside, and walking might have been difficult anyway. My mother shoved us under the kitchen table, scooted it against an outside wall, and came underneath with us.

As soon as the quake was over the phone rang: my dad calling from work checking to see if we were OK. When she hung up, my mother told us to quickly get dressed and put shoes on, as she picked up fallen objects and swept up broken glass in the kitchen.

Before we were dressed, another tremor hit. We ran downstairs from our bedrooms half-clothed and carrying our shoes. When the first shock had hit, we were too surprised to be frightened. This time, we howled and screamed in fright as we ran to Mom. She gathered up our coats and a large blanket, and took us outside to sit in the middle of the large grassy yard where we would be safe, away from the house, trees and power lines. We spent a good part of the morning there.

All told there were four quakes that morning between about 9:00 and 9:30, measuring between 4.3 and 6 on the Richter scale. There was minor damage all over the Fairbanks area, but no one was seriously hurt and the quakes did not cause major disruptions. We had known moments of terror, but the town had come through relatively unscathed.

The Turtles concert was still a couple of weeks away, but our rockin' and rollin' summer had gotten a jump start. Aftershocks rattled us daily. Despite this excitement, the high water mark of the summer was yet to come.

Soon on this blog: the third and final part of this story.

Text copyright 2017 by Marc Olson. Photo copyright 2017 by Brian Wallace.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Memoir: A Ten-Year-Old's Summer of Love, Part 1

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)
This was my summer between fifth and sixth grades. Interior Alaska summers are warm and and their days long and sunny, so after the dark, cold winter I looked forward to lots of outdoor time with my best friends, riding bikes, messing around in the woods, catching frogs, having archery tournaments and flying balsa wood gliders down the hill by our house on the University of Alaska campus.

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

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Earthquake: "It Was Strong, and Terrible"

I believe that this old roof is now gone

I was asleep in my hammock at the beach when last Thursday night's earthquake struck in Southern Mexico, so although the shaking was felt in Yucatán, I missed it. When I heard the news the next day, I sent a text message to my friend Victoria, who is from Juchitán, Oaxaca, one of the hardest-hit areas.

A few hours later I received a reply, stating simply, "it was strong, and terrible," and assuring that she was OK.

I tried calling on Saturday and couldn't get through. She called me Sunday from Mexico City. Still quite shaken, she told me how by chance she had boarded a bus out of Juchitán only hours before the quake hit. When she finally got news that her house had suffered significant damage, with a partial roof collapse and fissured walls, she realized that if she had not left on that bus, she might have been injured or killed. Several dozen in Juchitán are confirmed dead.

I have never mentioned that some of my best stories never get shared in this blog. I have very good friends, like Victoria, who have introduced me to aspects of Mexican life and culture not generally accessible. To blog about some of these experiences, to publicize them, would violate the privacy and the confidence of people who have shared with me and accepted me into their lives. So this friendship and this old house which was passed down to her from her grandmother and mother, are things that are exceptional for me in ways that I have not talked about in this blog.

Vela in Juchitán. We drink a few beers.
There have been wonderful times. In the kitchen of this house we once spent a simple but memorable evening preparing food, talking and sharing a bottle of fine mezcal. On another visit she invited me to a leisurely, old-fashioned comida with her extended family, during which we enjoyed plate after plate of seafood delicacies while enjoying singing and guitar playing, recitations of poetry and conversations long into the evening.

In this house we dress to attend velas, traditional indigenous festivals celebrated in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Victoria, attired in the traditional Zapotec manner, takes my arm, as I, in white guayabera, balance a case of beer, the admittance fee to attend the event, on my other shoulder.

Through Victoria, who has spent her career involved in the music and art communities, I've met some of the premier musicians, singers and artists in Mexico today. I have attended marvelous concerts and hung out backstage. A painter she introduced me to took me to two velas one night in Oaxaca. One was of the "official" sort, where we rubbed shoulders with the governor and other members of the Oaxaca elite. The other, after midnight in a barrio on the outskirts of the city, was hosted by muxes, Oaxaca's "third sex," men who dress as women but in general do not consider themselves either transvestites nor transgender. That uninhibited and raucous party endured until daylight.

The crowd gets into the spirit at a vela in Oaxaca (above and below)

Velas are family events in Juchitán

I have had many additional experiences associated with my dear friend and her old house, and I expect there will be many more. But first, Juchitán and other hard-hit areas have a lot of work to do.

The government and other organizations are mobilizing aid for those left without homes.

I just read that (sadly) demolition has begun on historic buildings in Juchitán centro too damaged to repair, such as the Palacio Municipal and Casa de la Cultura so that reconstruction can begin.

Oaxaca artists Lila Downs, Susana Harp, Alejandra Robles and others have organized a benefit concert for victims of the quake for this Sunday, Sept. 17, in Auditorio Guelaguetza in Oaxaca.

On the phone, Victoria told me that the facade of her house seems to be intact, and that the rest of the damage, according to her nephew, should be reparable. I certainly hope this is the case. Her fine old house resonates with family history and memories and it would be very sad to see it fall to the wrecking crew as well.

I was planning a visit to see Victoria this winter,  and due to circumstances for the moment those plans are on hold. Perhaps I will wait until spring. May is the "month of the velas." If I have learned one thing about Oaxaca, it is about its persistent and enduring spirit. Buildings crumble and people pass away, but the velas will go on.

To read more posts about Oaxaca, click here.

Text and images copyright 2017 by Marc Olson

Friday, August 25, 2017

Story: The Roll of Wire

A roll of barbed wire has been hanging for many years, perched on the corner of the corral out at the ranch.

Many times I've noted that I ought to do something with it. Although it's not in the way, the wire slowly rusts there where it is, exposed to the weather. I could store it under cover somewhere. It might be useful one day.

But I have left it where is hangs, mostly out of inertia, and partially because I like its air of pending usefulness.

I was looking at it one morning recently as I finished up some work nearby, and it prompted memories of a story I heard years ago.

In the early 90's I was working on a video project for the Simon Paneak Museum in the remote Nunamiut (inland Eskimo) village of Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, and the crew and I were staying at the home of the museum director, Grant Spearman. Incidentally, Grant's house was the last inhabited traditional sod house in Alaska and a living museum itself. Staying there was an interesting experience, but that's another story.

In his capacity as museum director, Grant coordinated closely with village elders, and had worked a lot with one, "Arctic John" Etalook, who had spent his youth living in the old way, as a nomadic caribou hunter. In his later years after his people settled in Anaktuvuk Pass in the late 40's, Arctic John ran a trap line in the Brooks Range and had remote hunting and trapping camps in the Bush.

Grant related how one day in the early 80's he'd told Arctic John, then quite elderly (he died in 1984), that he was going into the country and would be passing near one of John's old campsites. Arctic John asked Grant to pick up some of his traps that he'd left there on his last visit. Grant collected John's traps, which he'd found hanging right on the small tree where John had left them. The interesting part of this story is that it turned out that John's last visit to that spot was decades before. And the traps Grant had collected remained shiny and uncorroded, as if they'd been hanging there a week or two.

It's fascinating to know that there are still places where one can set something down and it will remain undisturbed and untouched as many years roll by. Or longer. I recall once climbing a hill in a remote area of the Brooks Range to stumble upon a tent ring, a circle of stones used to hold down the edges of a caribou-skin shelter, that may have been abandoned hundreds of years before.

But the message I take here is that life is a lot like the roll of wire and Arctic John's traps. We have resources, tools that are available, that often we just leave on the shelf and neglect to put to use. I wrote here early in the year that I was about to start renovating the little house at the ranch, but I have yet to start. My plans changed course and I am glad I took more time to think them over. Now it's time to get moving. I believe I am about to take down that roll of wire and put it to use.

Text and images copyright 2017 by Marc Olson

Friday, January 27, 2017

Ranch House: Raising the Roof

The casita at Rancho San Benito has been abandoned for many years. That is about to change.

The first time I approached the little stone building after buying the property, there was a large rattlesnake staring at me from under the kitchen counter. Scorpions, beetles, tarantulas and a variety of other creeping and crawling organisms scuttled away as I explored the dingy, dank rooms and moved accumulated debris aside.

Since the ranch house in this state is uninhabitable, I've been renting a small place in the nearby pueblo. Now I have decided it's time to quit renting and live in my own house. However, it needs more than cleaning and fumigation to be made comfortable.

The floor is cracked and uneven and the doors rotten and termite-damaged. The galvanized, corrugated metal roof, where it has not collapsed from rotten supports, is so rusted that pinholes of daylight show through like constellations in the night sky. And the ceiling is so low that I can reach up and touch it without stretching.

I'd like to have a little more headroom to keep the heat out of the living space and generally want to make the place more comfortable and secure. The work will include reinforcing the old walls and increasing the height of the ceiling by about 80cm, putting on a solid roof with skylights, enclosing the outdoor kitchen, replacing the floors and putting in new windows, doors and mosquito screens to help with safety and ventilation.

We'll also build a 5 x 7 meter above-ground water storage tank, to be filled by the windmill pump from the old hand-dug, stone-lined well. This will allow us to accumulate water for household use and irrigation when the wind blows and will serve as a swimming pool for refreshing dips after hot work in the fields.

After a long, fruitless search for a good contractor who would work in this remote area, I fell back on the engineer who has done several projects for me in Mérida. It turns out that some of his albañiles actually live in a pueblo not far away, so the logistics will not be as difficult as I had thought. Two of his employees, an engineer and an architect, came to the ranch with me this week to measure, draw plans and put together a budget for the project.

I hope to break ground within two weeks and to move in by April.

Text and images copyright 2017 by Marc Olson

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