Jim says I shouldn’t try to stay chronological, that I should tell my best stories so that you will all get hooked. Well, what follows is one of my very best stories. In order to place it in time I would have to think hard about exactly what year it was and I’m not sure I could get it right.
There are several really great Arctic Chamber Orchestra stories, and I think it is possible that Gordon Brooks Wright, the original conductor of the ACO may have told them in a more accurate form than my highly colored narrative may be. He was talking about writing a book.
I don’t think I will ever forget the first time I met Gordon Wright. I had sincerely informed my adviser, Dr. Wood (University President) that I was signing up for orchestra. I had been playing in various orchestras since I was in the ninth grade. I started out in that year with the Boulder Philharmonic under the sponsorship of my music teacher Mrs. Berkheimer. Then in San Diego I was accepted to play in the Civic Youth Orchestra.
When I saw “Orchestra 101″ on the class list, I knew I had to play, just as I had to take violin lessons. It was that simple. Dr. Wood seemed to have this archaic idea that before I got accepted to those classes I might have to meet with the orchestra conductor and perhaps even audition for him, and also talk to the violin professor, one Paul Rosenthal. So I ventured across the campus to the Music Department, and knocked on Gordon’s door.
A rather deep and pleasant voice bid me, “Come in.” I entered the office, and introduced myself. The man sitting in the office chair had a shock of brown curly hair and a full beard. He was leaning back, with his impressively large feet up on the desk in front of him. He was meditatively puffing on a long, rather pleasant-smelling cigar. When he realized that he was looking at a stranger, he plopped his feet down and stood up to greet me, and stood up, and stood up.
He unfolded to an impressive height, 6’5″, (or maybe it was 7″ – I can’t remember exactly but he was TALL) before me. No one EVER had a hard time seeing his down beat, I can promise you.
Anyway, the upshot of my interview with him was a hearty welcome to the orchestra. After our first rehearsal, he invited me to play in the Arctic Chamber Orchestra, which was the touring body of the University-Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra. I toured with the ACO every year after that until I left to go study viola at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in Jan, 1982.
Arctic Chamber Orchestra is the source of many of my best stories about life in the Northland. I have cogitated over which one is my favoite. There is the bus tour where we were on our way to perform in Seward and traffic was stopped for hours while the road crew cleared away the rock from the blasting they had just completed. Or the time we landed in Kobuk and the imaginative transport the citizens of the village provided for us. There was going over the pass from Ketchikan to Craig, experiencing the downdraft in a 4 seater Cessna. But for sheer amazing terror and adventure, nothing tops the trip we made out to play concerts at Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, out in the middle of the Bering Sea.
Somehow, Gordon extracted funding from some corporation or other, probably British Petroleum, which had a major presence in Alaska due to their desire to get the oil from the North Slope to Valdez and thence to the global market. We had already gone on our regular tour that year, this was an extra little overnight jaunt that was scheduled during the middle of the winter.
We loaded up into our usual transport for these tours, the WWII surplus C-46 owned by Alaska Scenic Airways, a company which we orchestra members lovingly referred to as “Elastic Scareways.”
There weren’t a lot of flights to Gambell back then, and one of the arrangements made during negotiations for the tour was that the people at Savoonga would turn on the radio beacon so that our pilot could locate the island. I just want to remind you that this trip DID happen during the Cold War, and nobody really wanted to get lost and make an unscheduled visit to that Asian country on the other side of the International Date Line from St. Lawrence Island.
The pilot was pretty concerned about the weather that was going on in the Bering Sea right then. It was little “dirty” and he wanted to be sure that he could actually land at Gambell when we finally arrived. Once he had traversed the mainland part of Alaska and the Bering Sea, he would not have enough fuel left to get back to Nome if he couldn’t land at Gambell, he would have to continue on into Russia. We had all been reminded to make sure we had valid ID with us on the flight, just in case.
Everyone was pretty excited to be going out to Gambell. All the art collectors in orchestra, plus the resident ethnomusicologist, were very excited about the opportunity to visit the Northern Commercial Store there. Apparently there was a lot of walrus ivory carving, baleen carving, driftwood carving, mask making, basketry, and leather working going on out there.
While we were waiting for the weather to get halfway decent, it was getting later and later. Pretty soon the sun would be going down, and our pilot didn’t really want to have to look for the island in the dark. There weren’t a lot of lights down there, and it might be hard to spot the land mass itself, let alone the runway.
Finally we got the go ahead from Nome, and we loaded up. On the way up there, we got good enough gas mileage that our pilot decided against landing and refueling there, instead we headed straight out towards St. Lawrence Island. He was hoping to make up some of the time lost waiting in Fairbanks for the wind in Nome to slacken. The ground people concurred with his plan, and so we headed out across Norton Sound.
The ceiling was about 1500 feet, which wouldn’t have been a problem if the people in Shungnak hadn’t figured we probably weren’t coming in such windy, snowy weather, and so did not turn on the radio beacon. It wasn’t the calmest flight I’d ever been on, but after a while it got pretty tiring. It seemed like we had been flying for an awful long time, but it wasn’t that bad.
Well, I guess that depended on who you were and what kind of stomach you had. A and D, the concertmistress and first chair second violin, had a tendency to have very bad air sickness. They were feeling pretty green despite their dramamine, and I had the misfortune of having D as my seat mate during the flight. She kept gulping, gasping, and grabbing my arm, and had been doing this for what seemed like hours. All of a sudden the ride got a whole order of magnitude rougher. A and D simultaneously reached for their barf bags as the pilot came on the intercom.
“Say, has anybody ever flown to St. Lawrence Island before? If you have could you come up to the cockpit and talk to me?”
One of our orchestra members, G, had travelled all over the Interior of Alaska during the course of his work. He made his way carefully up the aisle of the plane, trying to avoid being thrown into anybody’s lap on the way. The plane was bouncing and jouncing all over the place in a wild jitterbug action.
I heard someone sort of start to pray. The pilot came back on. “I’m sorry about the turbulence everyone. But St. Lawrence has not turned on their radio beacon and they aren’t answering radio calls either. I have notified Nome and they are sending out a call to Gambell and Shungnak on the radio phone to tell them to get somebody to turn on the damned beacon. They may have to fire up a generator to do that, so it could take a while. Also, there is this side wind so I really don’t know exactly how far off course I might be and Nome can’ t seem to see me on their radar. I have come down below the cloud cover so that maybe we can see lights on the island. It isn’t very populated and it might be hard to spot in the snow that is falling. Many eyes are better than two eyes, so what I need is for everybody to look out their windows and if you see lights sing out.”
We all started watching for lights; well, most of us did. I was one of the ones who was looking out the window for lights. I gazed into the unremitting blackness, hypnotized by the white streaks of snow flying by. I wondered how you could tell a Russian light from an American light. Meanwhile, D was retching into her airsick bag regularly. My attention would wander from the window as I held her head and patted her back. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she would apologize in her mild German accent every time she threw up. ”It’s okay,” I kept telling her. What, I was supposed to tell her to just quit vomiting already?
After a while, the pilot got back on the intercom. “I just heard from Nome. Apparently we are in danger of getting into Russian air space. Everybody hang on, I’m making a sharp turn in about ten seconds. “ We all grabbed the seat handles, as he added thoughtfully, “Nome is calling the Russians on the radio right now to let them know that we are a lost orchestra so they won’t scramble any MIGs.” We were all so comforted by that knowledge. Everybody mentally checked their purse or wallet for ID.
The plane felt like it spun on its tail, our turn was so sharp. You could see the black line of the coast under us as we turned. D threw up again. I couldn’t believe she had anything else left to heave. Suddenly, we heard a cheer from the cockpit. “The radio beacon just went on!” Everybody breathed a sigh of relief. Except for D and A, who both retched miserably yet again. I was in danger of the “sympathy” barf myself, by that time.
When we finally bounced to a landing, we all cheered, A and D loudest of all. We finished taxi-ing, and the plane came to a halt. Only, it felt like we were still moving because we could still hear the howling of the wind. The plane shuddered in concert with those howls as we sat on the air strip.
We looked out of the windows into a wilderness of snow. There were no buildings, just blue and white runway lights and snow blowing around in the gusts of wind. ”Just sit tight until our transportation arrives. It’s pretty cold, so I’m staying buttoned up until they get here.”
After a while, we saw the lights of snowmobiles bouncing across the tundra towards us. As we descended into the weather, each of us carrying our instrument, we could also hear the excited barking of dogs. Some of us got loaded up into the basket of the dog sleds and were carried into town that way. I got to ride in a sled, which I thought was totally cool. I was entrusted with several wind instruments, whose owners were being transported by snowmobile.
The ride into town was surprisingly smooth. The biggest bounce happened when the driver jumped on the back of the sled once we had momentum going. He had to jump on and off several times as we ascended drifts of snow that our trail went over. The group of sleds and snowmobiles had to make several trips to get the whole orchestra to the school where we were supposed to play.
Our dilemma at this point was whether to eat first or play the concert first and eat afterwards. Our concertmistress really didn’t want to do either. I think I heard her telling the orchestra manager that if she didn’t get to rest before we performed that there had better be a bucket by her chair just in case she was overcome by nausea. She really didn’t care to eat either.
The upshot was, we had about an hour break while she laid down to rest. The proprietor of the small Northern Commercial store graciously opened it up so we could do some shopping. We made it worth his while with our purchases. I got a wonderful walrus ivory carving.
The weather was so bad, we never got to Shungnak. Anyway, I think we were all too tired to contemplate playing another concert. Besides, our fearless pilot wanted to leave for Nome before the bad storm roaring across Siberia really hit and we couldn’t get off the ground at all. The villagers thought this was a good idea too: if we got snowed in we could eat them out of house and home really fast. The orchestra almost doubled the population of the town.
So we went on home shortly after the concert. I think it was an uneventful flight. I can’t really remember, I think I was sleeping.