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Archive for December 31st, 2006

I have come across several ideas about what to do for a New Year’s Eve post.  I felt attracted by the one where you put out the first sentence of the first post of each month for the year.  Then I went and checked my first sentences of each month.  Egads, how dull.  How banal.  How un-indicative.  Anyone who wants to read them is welcome to visit my archives. 

Some people are talking about their resolutions.   I don’t make those any more.  The making and regular breaking of them is too depressing.  I count my blessings all the time, I don’t have to wait for the New Year to be induced to do that.

Really, I have found that I am a story teller, so I’m heading right for the story.

I’m over fifty, so I have experienced a lot of New Year’s Eves and Days.  Most of them don’t really stick out in my mind.   Oh, there was the year that our strong psychic connection resulted in both of us bringing home two identical bottles of champagne, so we had four bottles of bubbly that we felt compelled to try to drink.  The evening was giddy, the next morning hung over.  My resolution that year was something about not drinking too much the night before, not enjoying beginning the year with a headache.

And there was the year I actually scored tickets to the Grateful Dead’s New Year’s Eve concert, attended in an altered state and had a profound religious experience.  That is a pretty good story, come to think of it. 

There have been numerous parties involving good friends, fireworks, and bonfires.  But nothing really stands out above the joy of greeting a “new year” with the people you love best.

But there is one New Year’s Eve that will forever stick in my mind.  Jim and I had been married for a little longer than a year.  He had managed to get promoted to Chief Petty Officer, and was scheduled for his regular duty rotation, which generally happens every 3 years.  There are all sorts of considerations when you start talking to your detailer about where you are going to go next.  He had been on a shore assignment, and had to go to a ship.  But which ship?  Where would it be stationed?   Where was he likely to go after that?

We had managed to build up a fairly sizeable credit card debt, and we wanted to get out from under it.   We wanted to save some money and use it to make a down payment on a house at our next duty station.  He wanted to have some leverage with his detailer so he could stay on the West Coast rather than have to move to the East Coast.  

Before he met me, Jim had spent a couple of assignments at Whidbey Island in Washington, and he really liked the Pacific northwest.  I had some experience with it myself, having lived for some time in Juneau.  So I was not averse to living in the Seattle area, in spite of all the rain.  Housing prices in Bremerton and Silverdale were not out of reach for us. 

An unaccompanied overseas assignment would garner us a little higher pay because of the hardship.  There was an assignment that was in an area that was considered dangerous, namely the Persian Gulf, so there was also extra pay for that.  I had a good job in San Francisco and would not have to move if he went to the unaccompanied assignment.   In fact, when he returned from it, the taxpayers of the United States, in the form of the Navy, would pay to move us to our new place.  And the detailer promised that if he went to the dangerous hardship assignment, our next assignment would be on a ship stationed in Bremerton, WA.

So, Jim chose the unaccompanied assignment, a ship called the LaSalle, which was the flagship of the Indian Ocean fleet.   He was to be gone for one entire year.  During that time, if we were lucky, he would get to come home for some leave. 

The USS LaSalle was forward stationed.   The port that she sailed out of and got supplies through was Manama, Bahrain.  She never came back to a United States port, but stayed out in the Indian Ocean until it was time for her next refit.  All personnel that were assigned to her were flown there, courtesy of the US government.  As I understand it, getting from San Francisco to Bahrain by way of Norfolk, Virginia and Rota, Spain was quite the odyssey.  But that is not my story, it is Jim’s.

When he got the new assignment, I had one of my first real tests as a “new” Navy wife.  He was ordered to be in Norfolk by 8 a.m. on the 1st of January in order to catch the military flight to Bahrain.  Needless to say, this cast rather a pall over our Christmas celebration.  But it taught me a valuable lesson in the importance of living in the moment.

Around Thanksgiving Jim had gone through his stuff and packed up the things that he wanted shipped out to Bahrain.   This included the dinner dress uniforms, which he was required to purchase since he was going to be on the Admiral’s ship and there were likely to be social occasions where he would need them.  You don’t want to know how much the Navy’s version of a tuxedo, with all accompanying insignia and miniature medals, costs.  And we had to buy TWO of them, one black, one white..   Actually, he did look rather splendid:

dinner-dress.jpg

Anyway, we decided that we wanted to spend as much time as possible together before he actually left for the overseas assignment, and so when he got his airline tickets, he got the last possible flight out of San Francisco that would get him to Norfolk in time to catch the C5A that would take him across the Atlantic.   It was a United Airlines red-eye leaving at 1:05 a.m. New Year’s Day.

Without going into too much detail, it was this particular assignment that taught us that you should not expect to have a real physical farewell when you are both under a lot of stress.  There were certain hydraulic and concentration difficulties on both our parts that made our planned ecstatic evening fizzle most depressingly.  We couldn’t drink to excess because there was a drive to the airport in the near future.  After our wonderful dinner, which I can’t remember after all this time, I watched him complete his packing chores.

I remember being astonished that he could put all the clothes and gear he needed for the next year (with the exception of those aforementioned uniforms), into one sea bag and a carry-on that would fit under the seat in front of him.  

The hour finally arrived, and we loaded up his baggage and headed off to the airport.   At that innocent time, you were only required to be an hour early for your flight.  Security consisted of walking through a metal detector, and anybody who wanted to could go to the gate area.  We wanted to spend as much time together as possible, and so we decided to go to the gate together.  Over the years we learned that the airport door drop-off is less stressful, but we were still new at this.

There was almost no one on the freeways as we drove to the airport.   It didn’t help my frame of mind any to know that all the people who were usually driving around were probably at parties: dancing, drinking, getting ready for the countdown with their loved ones. 

We got to the parking garage and found it nearly deserted.  Not surprisingly, there was an extremely convenient parking spot.  I had just gotten out of the car, and Jim was leaning over into the back seat, getting his bags out, when we heard all the taxis blowing their horns, and lots of ecstatic yelling from that direction.   We looked across the car at each other, and Jim said, “Happy New Year, dear.”  I returned the salutation in an equally unenthusiastic tone. 

Bags checked, boarding pass in hand, we went to the gate area.   All the bars in the terminal were closed, for some inexplicable reason.   So we sat there, holding hands, and not saying a whole lot.   The flight was called, one last kiss and hug, and then I watched him disappear around the corner of the flyway.  I stood at the window of the the terminal, and saw the plane button up, back up and leave the gate.

I turned to walk back to the car through the deserted terminal.  I made it a few gates down, and then I just sat down and cried.  It was January 1, 1987.   We got our bills paid by April, in spite of the amazing phone bills you incur when calling collect from Bahrain to san Francisco.  I didn’t see him again until July 19, when he came home for two weeks leave.  He returned for good from that assignment on January 11, 1988.

I’ll tell you, when young ladies complain to me about their husbands being gone over the week on a business trip, and they just don’t know what they will do with them gone “for SO LONG,” all I can do is sigh.  And I tell them, “You have it easy, honey.  I could do four days with both hands tied behind my back.”

  

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In 1980 the Libertarian Party in Alaska succeeded in having a candidate elected to office.  That would be Richard L. (Dick) Randolph, who was running for State Representative. 

The party decided that it would be most effective if we had a full slate of candidates on the ballot.  There was a pretty good Presidential candidate, Ed Clark.  My husband at the time agreed to be one of the six Fairbanks North Star Borough candidates for State Representative, along with Dick and four other guys, most of whose names escape me.  Sorry, it was a long time ago. 

The real goal of that election was for Ed Clark to receive enough votes in the national election that the Libertarian Party would no longer have to go through the petition process to get candidates on the ballot.  In pursuit of this goal the Alaska Libertarian Party felt that it was imperative that we have a campaign headquarters.  It doesn’t do any good to have a headquarters that isn’t manned, and since I was in between jobs and my husband was running for office, I volunteered.  In addition to manning the phones, I helped organize mail campaigns, I learned all the talking points, and interacted with the casual visitors to our rather spartan headquarters. 

When the votes were counted and we discovered we had actually won a seat in the State House, our elation knew no bounds.  Dick was entitled to have a secretary and a legislative aide.  He wanted someone working as secretary who not only was an excellent and experienced secretary, but who could also function as a legislative researcher and assistant aide.  The catch was, you had to relocate to Juneau for six or so months for the legislative session.  He asked me if I would like to have the job, and after I consulted with my significant other, I jumped at the job.

And thereby hangs a tale.  Of course.

The Alaska State Legislative session begins in January and lasts until May, unless there is so much legislation to cover that they can’t finish the session by then.  At that time, with all the Pipeline and Native Land Claims Settlement Act stuff going on, they rarely closed their sessions before June.  I needed to be down in Juneau and established in an apartment before the session began.

The only way to get a vehicle to Juneau is to drive it to Haines and catch a ferry from there to Juneau.  From Fairbanks to Haines is approximately 650 miles.  First you drive south to Delta Junction, then you head east to Tok.  You continue east, enter Canada, drive south to Haines Junction, and then go over the Chilkat Pass and then down into Haines.  Not a trip for the faint at heart in the dead of winter.

Lydia, Dick’s beautiful and highly intelligent wife, had already located a good place for them to live during the session.  She and Dick left for Juneau shortly after Christmas, and their 18 year old son Fred was detailed to drive their car down towing a trailer with the furniture that they needed.  His 14 year old brother Dean was to ride along with him, and I would caravan with them in my lime green Saab.

One extremely frigid January morning, we pulled out of Fairbanks and headed off down the highway towards Haines.  We had reservations for the ferry from Haines to Juneau the morning of the next day, and were planning to drive straight through.  It would be a long day, but it was doable.  The weather report was cause for some concern.  There was a pretty good storm coming in, but it looked like the pass might stay open. 

There were a lot of people who were headed for Juneau, and we didn’t want to miss our ferry reservation.  It could be a long wait for an opening if we did.

Things were going along really well.  It was snowing, but not blowing too bad when we stopped for gas in Haines Junction.  We took a break, had some lunch, filled our thermoses.  Conditions in the Chilkat Pass were deteriorating.  A Mountie had just driven through and it was snowing pretty hard.  But so far, the snow plows were keeping up and the wind had not risen too much, and they had decided not to close the highway just yet.

Fred and I decided that we had better hit the road before the weather got worse.  We were making pretty good time, and were congratulating ourselves on the fact that we would be in Haines so early we would have to stay overnight in a hotel.  Off down the highway we went, and entered the exciting territory of the Chilkat Pass.

The farther we got from Haines Junction, the heavier the snow got.  We were both experienced drivers; we had studded snow tires and front wheel drive, so we were feeling pretty confident.  The wind picked up, and our speed dropped to a crawl as the white out conditions started to settle in.  It was important to stay on the road way.  It was built up on a high gravel pad to keep the permafrost from thawing.  During the winter, the snow plows blew snow over the edge and the wind filled in the dropoff with drifts.  If you put your wheel over the edge accidentally, you would be pulled off into the deep snow.  The only remedy for that predicament was a friendly pickup truck with a winch or a tow truck.  We weren’t interested in that inconvenience.

We stopped to consult.  We decided to put Dean in my car.  I would lead, slowly, with Dean keeping a sharp eye out the passenger window to keep me from driving off the edge of the road.  Fred would follow my tail lights.  We drove slowly on.  Suddenly, I realized that Fred’s headlights were not in my rear view mirror.  Immediately I back tracked, and found him stopped, a half mile behind me.  Dean hopped out to see what was up.

What had happened was the wheel bearing on the trailer had gone bad.  He just happened to notice that the tire of the trailer seemed to be farther out than he expected to see it and had stopped to see what was going on.  The wheel was on the axle, but hanging on by about 1/8 of an inch.  If he had gone much further, it would have fallen off. 

We remembered seeing a road house about five miles back, and decided to go back there and see if they had a tow truck or a mechanic that could help us out.  Fred managed to squeeze into my back seat along with my household possessions, and the three of us left the trailer and Dick’s very nice Mercedes sitting on the edge of the road.

The road house did have a mechanic and a tow truck (which the mechanic drove), but he had gone into Haines Junction for some part or other and had not gotten back yet.  His wife plied us with coffee and pie, and we waited.  The snow fell.  We waited.  The wind started to pick up.  We waited.  Finally, several hours later, he finally got back from town.

Fred and he went off to investigate the trailer situation.  Time was still passing.  The ferry would not wait for us.  There was discussion as to whether the pass was going to have to be closed.   Fred and the mechanic came back with the car, but without the trailer. 

After a lot of telephone conferencing with Dick and Lydia in Juneau, and discussion with the mechanic and the road house hostess, this was what we decided to do.  Dean would come along with me and I would head down to Haines to catch the ferry.  Fred would stay with the car and trailer and get the trailer repaired, and then continue on to Juneau when that was accomplished.   The road house owners were happy for the business.

Dean and I got into the car and started off on our climb up into the Chilkat Pass.  The weather had not improved any.  It was snowing hard, and the wind was blowing quite hard.   This had its good points, as the howling gale was preventing the snow from accumulating on the roadway in any quantity.  Well, except for where the drifts were forming across it.  But at least you could see the edges of the road.  I figured there wasn’t likely to be a lot of traffic, and kept to the middle. 

Every once in a while, the whiteout got so bad, Dean had to open his window and hang his head out the window to see whether I was getting close to the berm at the edge.  Thankfully,  the wind dropped a bit, and I could see well enough that he didn’t have to do that any more.  At the same time, the snow started falling a lot more heavily, and it quickly became about 6 inches deep on the road.   Every once in a while we would encounter a drift that was a couple of feet deep, but these drifts were narrow and the car bashed through them pretty well.   I learned that the drifts were shallower on the far side of the road, so I aimed for that side when I saw one.  We sort of slalomed along in the broad valley that leads to the summit of the pass. 

I was grateful for the lack of other traffic, but I started to wonder where the plows were, and why the drifts were so pristine and untouched.  The piles of snow on either side of the road that had accumulated during the earlier part of the winter were about eight to ten feet high.  Solid ice, they reassured me that at least I didn’t have to worry about running off into the ditches.  On the other hand, they made a lee that was causing some very impressive drifts to form.

I looked over at Dean.  He was almost as white as the snow that surrounded us, and had a death grip on the panic bar on the dashboard in front of him.  I didn’t feel a whole lot more relaxed, but I also didn’t really want to stop and become one with the drifts.  So we persevered. 

I saw the sign that marked the summit, and figured that at least gravity would help us get through the drifts, which had gotten to the point that I was definitely afraid we were going to get high centered.   The road dropped over the edge of the mountain, and began to twist down into the valley where the US Border Station and Haines were located. 

It would have been a fun roller coaster ride if I had had rails to ride on and no responsibility for keeping the vehicle on the road.  Darkness had fallen as we proceeded through the pass.  Down the road ahead of me, I could see some sort of unearthly glow.  As I went down, it got brighter and brighter.  I wondered what was causing it.

I rounded a sharp curve and the explanation laid itself out in terrifying clarity before me.  Coming up the hill was battle line of three gigantic snow plows.  The glow I had noticed a few moments before was caused by the row of high powered lights across the top of their cabs. These impressive monsters were the sort of plows that have rotating blades to break the snowdrifts up.  The resulting powder is blown up and over the big piles that are already lining the roads.  Sort of like your little driveway snowblower on steroids.

They were working to clear the road of snow and drifts in tandem.  In spite of the fact that they were travelling up hill, they were making very good speed.  The one in front was in my lane, the second one occupied the middle of the road and the third one occupied the other lane.  They were all blowing huge clouds of snow down hill, and they were spaced about thirty feet apart.

My heart stopped beating, my breath halted as well.  Fortunately, my brain and driver reflexes went into overdrive.  I did the only thing possible.  I moved to the center of the road and headed straight for the middle plow.  As soon as I went past the first plow, I pulled sharply to the right in behind him.  Since he was spreading gravel as he went, the traction suddenly got very good, which was a really good thing because the cloud of snow the three plows were producing blinded me completely.

We continued on down the hill, the road miraculously clear in front of us.  The glow of the plows disappeared into the storm behind us.   I figured I might as well go on, since now I no longer had to contend with the drifts that had been making driving such hell only minutes before.  I looked over at Dean.  He had thrown himself back into the corner of his seat, his eyes were clenched shut, and he was as close to being in the fetal position as you can get when strapped into seat belt and shoulder harness.

“I think we’re going to be okay, now, Dean,”  I commented to him, once I could speak again.  He opened his eyes, and resumed a more normal posture. 

We dropped off the mountain, and the snow lightened.  After another hour or so, we reached the Customs Entry Station.  It was closed.  Since the Canadian Highway Patrol had closed the Chilkat Pass several hours earlier, the customs agent had gone on home to sleep and had left a note that he would be back at five in the morning.  So we waited.

He was quite astonished when he returned to his post.  We spent a few pleasant moments trying to figure out how I managed to be in the pass after the roads were closed.   We figured that the Highway Patrol’s final sweep of the road had occurred while Fred and I were trying to figure out what to do about the trailer, and when I took off from the road house they were in the act of closing the road at the far end in Haines Junction.

I know how I felt when I met the plows, I can only imagine their consternation to meet a vehicle coming through a closed road.  I imagine my heart was not the only one that stopped momentarily that night. 

The remainder of our journey was made exciting by the black ice on the road.  Granted, we weren’t going up and down hills.  Instead, we were twisting along the fjord that Haines sits on.  On one side of us was a cliff, on the other the cold black water of the Gulf of Alaska.  Dean was pretty much in shock by then, we had expended so much adrenalin by then there wasn’t any left.

We made the ferry, with minutes to spare, and slept all the way to Juneau.  Dean never got into my car again.

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