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


  1. Elegantly narrated. Vivid memoir that accurately presents the Fairbanks, AK of the era. I guess this is going to be a cliff hanger... I await the next installment.

    1. Well If you know anything about Fairbanks back then you may know what's coming. Don't tell.... I'm working on Part 2.

  2. So delightful to read about your "adventures". It reminds me of my son in the 70's living near a creek and he and his buddies building tree forts, catching spiders and heaven knows what else (that I don't really want to know about). I do remember him coming home one time with a BIG yellow banana spider that had hit him in the middle of the forehead and then he caught it and brought it for me to see! Life was great when kids had the freedom to do and "be".

    1. Oh, you reminded me. I forgot to mention the tree forts. We actually chopped down trees and built ours out of round logs. Yes, a kid's life wss different then. I am glad I spent my childhood when and where I did.

  3. I lived on an 1800 built impoundment as a lad in the early 60s. I had minnow traps for a little business selling bait to the local liveries. I would gather nightcrawlers after summer showers. The minnows were about a penny apiece, nightcrawlers about two cents . A 6-8 inch chub sold for 50 cents to the men fishing musky. We caught the chubs with our bare hands.
    The old grist mill at the stone dam was 5 stories tall, the floors were all rotted out but we kids could get around on the old wooden beams. Baby pigeons were the goal, the old geezers at the former stagecoach stop turned tavern would give me 25 cents for each one. They raised them up for dinner.

    We lived on a bluff in a converted feedstore. My mother could keep an eye on us with her field glasses while we played in the marshes behind the house. I did my first solo campout on a dry humic back there around 6 years of age . It seemed like the wilderness to me but going back as an adult, it was only about 600 yards from our house.

    You talk about arrows. When you were strong enough to string the recurve, there was one under the Christmas tree. I got my first shotgun at eleven, we loaded our own shells so skeet shooting was a few times a week activity.

    The town of Orangeville was a little backward, we still had a crank phone in 62. My grandma ran the switchboard. All good things must come to an end, the federal government took the town and all the riverfront property in 65 for a bigger impoundment. The fact that the reservoir never got anywhere near Orangeville is just one of those things .
    I lived a free life as a child, it would seem you did as well. Lucky boys we are.

    1. Yes, we had more freedom, less structure, but never lacked for interesting things to do. I had a tool kit, saw, hammer and nails, and was forever cutting up scrap wood and making things. We built "forts" and tree houses and made entire cities and highway systems in the dirt for our matchbox cars. We took things apart to figure them out. It was creative. We had adventures. We truly were lucky to grow up in the way we did.

  4. A beautifully written remembrance of childhood. I look forward to Part 2.
    I was already in high school by 1967, and worries about Vietnam were on my mind, but it takes me back to the uncomplicated summers of my childhood in the 50s and early 60s.


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