Archive for the ‘Arctic Chamber Orchestra’ Category

Once again, we find ourselves in southeast Alaska.   The Arctic Chamber Orchestra made several tours down this little strip of mountainous sea coast; the Arts Associations there were avid to have us visit.  I got to visit  Cordova, Wrangell and Haines more than once.  

I remember one time when we travelled over to a port town in a fleet of airplanes referred to as the Grumman goose.  Now, you  really need to click on that link and take a look at some of the pictures on that page.   The story will make better sense if you have seen a picture of this airplane. 

Okay, are you back?  There were three of these rather peculiar looking airplanes waiting for us at the airstrip when we got there in the morning.  I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure we were flying from Wrangell to Petersburg, or vice versa.  We took off on a runway just outside of town, and remarkably there was even a terminal building.  At our destination, we landed in the water of the harbor.  

 While we were waiting to board the planes, the wind was blowing down out of the mountains, something fierce.   We were appalled to see one of the planes get caught by a gust of wind as it waited on the runway, and the tail flipped up.   The thing tilted up on its nose, and we watched as a bunch of guys tore over there and sort of hung on the elevator structure at the back of the plane and pulled it back into its customary attitude resting on its tiny little tail wheel.  The guy in the terminal blithely informed us not to worry, that that sort of thing happened all the time because the Goose tended to be a little top heavy.   He went on to muse how it was a lot better that this had happened before we boarded rather than while there were people in the aisles like the last time.  

We weren’t very much comforted.   But the pilot made a pretty complete inspection of the plane after its little mishap.   Apparently he was a lot more concerned that there was no damage to the hull, and not that concerned about the engines and propellers, which actually had not come very near the ground while it was tilted on its nose.  Satisfied, we were instructed to board.   After sorting us pretty severely by weight and assigning us to seats, we were escorted to our planes. 

It was a beautiful day for flying, and for once the sun was gilding the ice capped Wrangell mountains.   There were birds flying below us in squadrons.   There was a river flowing down into the Inside Passage, with waterfalls.   Below us in the water you could see fishing boats. The landing in the harbor was a rush.   The plane touched down and a curving wave peeled off the surface and arced past the windows.   Suddenly, we lost all our momentum to the embrace of the water, and taxied to the dock where we disembarked. 

Now I know that these stories sound like a series are starting to sound like “Airplanes I Have Known”.  I can’t help it, there were a lot of airplanes.   I’m hoping that there aren’t some ghosts hovering over me yelling things like “How can you not remember whether you were playing a Haydn symphony or one of the Brandenburg Concertos?”  So, I’m flunking the listening portion of music history, lack-a-day. I’ve already apologized in a previous post for not saving the programs over three states and heaven only knows how many moves.   I don’t have any of the recital programs I saved from San Francisco Conservatory of Music either.  If you were looking for some sort of concert review, you might as well stop reading now, because I’m afraid this is just another rather harrowing airplane story. 

There was a tour where we travelled from Ketchikan to Craig.  This may have been the same tour when we travelled in the Grumman Goose, or it may have been another time.  Anyway, we were scheduled to play in Craig, and the only way to get there was by float plane.

A whole flock (flotilla?) of little planes had been chartered.  There was a very sweet Havilland Otter which was detailed to carry a few passengers, the basses, celli and timpani.   There was also a Beaver, and several miscellaneous smaller aircraft.  When we got to the waterfront in Ketchikan to board, it was already late afternoon.   The plane I was assigned to was a four-seater.  

Our pilot looked the three of us over and asked us if we got airsick.  I was the only one who enthusiastically answered that I was NEVER motion sick, so he told me I could be his “co-pilot”.  Our bags and instruments loaded up, the two other passengers clambered into the back seats and got strapped in to his satisfaction.   Then I got in and was cinched down, and instructed rather severely to not touch anything, especially not the foot pedals by accident.  

As is usual in Southeast Alaska, the weather was getting ready to change.  The rain was starting to come in again, and apparently there was some sort of problem for the kid who was flying our plane.  He mentioned something about having to adhere to visual flight rules, and he wanted to get us to Craig, off-loaded and be back in Ketchikan before it got dark.   He didn’t want to stay in Craig overnight because he had a hot date.   I was treated to this explanation over the head phones as we headed off over the water towards Prince Edward Island.  The ladies in the back seat mercifully were spared the details.

The pilot didn’t want to have to fly around the perimeter of Prince Edward Island because it would take too long.  So we headed off over the island en route to a pass between some of the mountains ahead of us.  Unfortunately, as we flew on, the clouds lowered more and more, and our pilot began to worry that we wouldn’t get to the pass before the clouds socked it in completely.   It was a pretty bumpy flight up through the mountains, but it was also quite beautiful.  At one point we flew past a bunch of bighorn sheep perched on a cliff. 

Finally, we arrived at the pass.  We flew through the u-shaped valley, with mountains on either side of us.  As we passed over the edge of the cliff that was on the far side of the pass, the land dropped away beneath us, and apparently so did all the air.  Or at least that is what it felt like. 

“Shit!” the pilot yelled as he wrestled with the controls.  We plummeted several hundred feet straight down, caught in a wicked down draft.  I watched the little needle on the altimeter spin around, and wondered why my life was not passing before my eyes because clearly we were going to die very soon.  Behind me I heard my co-passengers retching wretchedly into their airsick bags.  That is by far the biggest hole in the air I hope to never experience again. 

The rest of the flight was full of “potholes” and we were quite relieved to finally land in the harbor at Craig.  We deplaned, and watched as the pilot took off for his return flight to Ketchikan.  I noticed he headed along the coast and not back towards the interior of the island.  Soon some Arts Association members arrived and transported us to the school where we waited for the rest of the orchestra to arrive.   They had come around the long way, so we had plenty of time to regain our color and spirits before they joined us. 

After the concert, we were split up between our hosts.   Craig was a small town, and we were being housed by volunteers.   The list of people sent out ahead consisted of  last names and initials, and my host was extremely distressed to discover that he had been assigned a single woman.  He was a school teacher, and quite upset, feeling that his reputation was at risk by having a female stay overnight with him.  He had a small tantrum at the arts association people, who tried to reassure him, but he was not sanguine.  Finally, humphing and puffing, he escorted me to his small apartment.  Without closing the front door, he showed me the ropes, and then left me alone while he went over to a friend’s place to stay the night.  I can assure you his virtue was safe with me, he wasn’t that attractive.  And certainly, he was less than hospitable. 

 The next morning I had a lonely breakfast of cold cereal and made my way unescorted down to the harbor where our transport back to Ketchikan awaited. 

And so, another day in the life of the Arctic Chamber Orchestra, another airplane.

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One of the more memorable trips the Arctic Chamber Orchestra made was to Kaktovik.  As I recall, this trip was made sometime in late January.   The plan was to fly up to Kaktovik on a Saturday afternoon, give an evening concert there, stay the night, and then proceed on to Anaktuvuk Pass the next day for a matinee and then return to Fairbanks.

I wish I was better at remembering what music it was we were playing on all these tours.  My alibi is that it was 30 years ago, and I am lucky I remember we went on the trip, much less what it was we played.  For a long time I saved the concert programs from all those many years ago, but somewhere around the third or fourth time the Navy moved us those miscellaneous pieces of paper seemed to become extraneous.  Now I wish I had saved them, if only so as to remind me of what it was we were presenting to all these tiny communities.

In addition to the Inuit community of Kaktovik, Barter Island also had a DEW line radar station.   I can’t imagine what sort of calamity in your Air Force career earns you a posting to Kaktovik; probably something similar that gets you to Thule, Greenland or Attu Island in the Aleutians.  Anyway, we got on our chartered Alaska Airlines DC3 and flew up over the frozen Brooks Range and landed at the equally frozen airstrip at Kaktovik.  We were met by a couple of vans that transported us in batches through the -45 degree howling gale to the school where we were scheduled to perform.  No one deplaned until there was a van ready to receive them, I can tell you, and no one was sad that they didn’t transport us by dog sled, either, although there were plenty of those available.

It was a truly amazing trip into town.  Off in the distance were the lights and domes of the Air Force’s radar installation.  Every once in a while, there was a roof visible, a few chimneys poked up through the snow.  I kept waiting for the school to appear,and when the driver stopped and informed us cheerily “Here we are!” I still didn’t see anything that looked like a school.   We disembarked from our transportation, and I looked around the featureless expanse of snow and thought “Where are we?”  About that time a bundled up person  rose from the drift.   We walked over to where we were being signalled from, and suddenly I realized why I couldn’t see the school.  It was completely buried in deep drifts of snow.   As we approached our welcomer, a set of steps carved into the drift she was perched on appeared in front of us.  We walked down this transitory stair case and entered the school.

We ate the dinner provided for us in the school cafeteria, it was spaghetti of some sort if my memory serves.   The performance was in the school gymnasium, which was well soundproofed and not that echo-y.   It was quite well attended.  Not only did pretty much every person in the town come to hear us, but so did most of the people from the Air Force station, except for those unlucky few who were required to man the radar, just in case the USSR found out about our concert that night and decided it would be an opportune time to launch the nuclear war we were all so paranoid about.

After the concert, as was quite frequent in our forays into the Bush, the town dancers put on a performance for us.   The dance troupe from Kaktovik frequently performed and competed at things like the Arctic Winter Games, so they were truly wonderful to watch and listen to.  Of course, the Musicology Professor was in heaven as he taped the drumming and chanting.

Then we all scattered about the school and bedded down for the night.  I found a cozy little nook in the business class room.  I lost my favorite pair of earrings that night.   They were 24K gold, beautiful little bells, about a half an inch long, complete with clappers.   When I walked in a light breeze or shook my head, I could hear their faint sweet ringing.  I wore them a lot, but they were not comfortable to sleep in, so I took them off and placed them on the typewriter table that I was sleeping next to, sort of slid them under the frame of the IBM selectric that was occupying the table.   The next morning I forgot them.  I am sure that on Monday, there was a young lady who was happy to appropriate them.  I hope she enjoyed them.

After a breakfast of pancakes, juice, and bacon, we all gathered in the gym awaiting transport to the plane.   No van appeared, and we began to get curious as to what the difficulty was.   Eventually, after a time, our pilot finally arrived and held an intense conversation with our conductor, Gordon Wright, and the orchestra manager.  Aside from the fact that things obviously were not going according to plan, Gordon appeared to be fairly amused by the information he was given.

The pilot left, and Gordon called us together to tell us all about it.  The night before, there had been a certain amount of concern about whether our airplane would start in the morning due to the intense cold Barter Island was experiencing.  The pilot had opined that perhaps he should fly back to Fairbanks and then return in the morning to pick us up, but the Air Force had generously offered the use of one of their hangars overnight.  So our little DC3 had been rolled inside the shelter, the big metal doors slid shut.   Just to make sure the plane would start in the morning, they lit off two big propane space heaters to keep the area warm.  

When you burn propane, you get three things:  heat, carbon dioxide, and water vapor.  The all night heating of the hangar produced plenty of all three.  Unfortunately, much of the water vapor condensed on the big metal hangar doors, and they were solidly frozen shut.   It was Sunday morning after a late Saturday night, and it seems that there were not a whole lot of people who wanted to hunt out, transport, and erect scaffolding, and then climb the same, and spend a few golden hours pounding on sheets of ice so that our plane could emerge from its shelter and take us off home.  (By the way, the plane engines DID start.)

While the recalcitrant military personnel were being rounded up and started on the nasty job, the weather was deteriorating.   It appeared that if we didn’t get off the ground in the next few hours, we might be stuck there for a fairly long stretch of time since the wind conditions could make a take-off virtually impossible.  Faced with the possibility of an extended stay by a group of people that nearly doubled its population, the town of Kaktovik started counting their supplies.  At any rate, it was pretty clear that they were going to have to come up with a lunch for what was starting to look like a horde of locusts in formal black. 

In the betwixt whiles, they opened up all the supplies of the gymnasium for our amusement.   There were roller skates, and a bunch of us availed ourselves of them and spent a while falling around the floor.   Eventually, someone broke out a couple of volleyball nets, and we organized a volleyball tournament.   This was a lot of fun, in spite of the fact that there were many people who were averse to actually hitting the ball unless they were absolutely certain that they had exactly the right angle on it.   No one whose livelihood depends on playing a musical instrument really wants jammed fingers. 

As I recall, the brass beat the winds, the low strings beat the high strings, and ultimately the brass prevailed over the low strings.   A good time was had by all, and no one was permanently disabled.   However, we all discovered the next day that we needed a lot more upper body workout: everybody’s shoulders were very sore.

Our hosts scrounged up a lunch of baloney sandwiches and apple sauce, and started thinking about dinner.  Fortunately, it was not necessary for them to provide it.  The hangar doors finally opened, we loaded up and skedaddled back to Fairbanks.  It was too late to make it to Anaktuvuk Pass, and the weather there was too bad for the airplane to land anyway.  We went and performed there later that spring.

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The internet is an interesting thing.  I have written several posts about my amazing experiences playing in the University Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and the Arctic Chamber Orchestra.  I like to look at the “blog stats” portion of my page to see what is bringing people to my blog.  In the last couple of days I have noticed a lot of searches for “Arctic Chamber Orchestra” and “Gordon B. Wright.”  It made me wonder what was going on.

When I was a young lady of 18 attending the University of Alaska, Gordon Brooks Wright was the conductor of the orchestra there.    Of course, that meant he was in a different generation from me.  This morning it occurred to me that perhaps all this search activity was caused by his death and the need for information for an obituary.   So I did my own search, and discovered to my sadness that my suspicion was correct.

Gordon Wright’s body was found by a friend and colleague at his cabin recently.  The article about it can be found here.  One of my best recollections about Gordon can be found on my post about our flight to Gambell on St. Lawrence Island.  He figures in one of the photographs in the post about the fall 1976 tour which included Seward on the itinerary.

But the posts referenced above are more about me than about Gordon.  He was a truly amazing person.  In addition to his musicality, he was also deeply concerned about the environment.  He had a great sense of humor, often lightening tense moments during orchestra rehearsal with jokes.  I still remember his version of the “flight information announcement” as we took off from one of our numerous visits to a gravel strip somewhere in the Alaska bush.  It included a “flight attendant’s unform” and a “wig” (a mop he found somewhere) and had the whole orchestra almost rolling in the aisles in hysterics.

He was conductor when the University Concert Hall was finally completed.  Before that, we used to play our concerts in the Regents’ Great Hall, which is the lobby of the theatre and concert hall.  The concert that celebrated that grand opening included Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.  Since we didn’t have the proper concert cannon, Gordon prevailed upon the artillery at Fort Wainwright to provide the sounds of the guns going off in the finale.  It turned out that the parking lot where the howitzers set up was too far from the concert hall sonically for the sound to be heard within, so a sound system was set up to bring the effect into the concert hall.  When that was finally all arranged, we began the section again.  The cannon went off — “BANG” — followed by horrible crashing, some yelling, and then silence.   We all sat there, rather stunned, wondering what in the world had happened.  Turns out the microphone was too close to the gun and the shock wave of the blank going off blew it right out of the parking lot.  I heard Gordon mutter something about Bernstein never having to go through stuff like this.

Once we happened to have a concert scheduled for Halloween night.  Needless to say, it was deemed imperative that we open the concert with  Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”.   The orchestra was requested and required to memorize the opening of the work, and to keep all plans a deep dark secret.   Against all the Fire Code rules, the exit lights were blacked out in preparation for the opening events that night.   After the audience was settled, when the lights went down in preparation for the concert, they went all the way down.   The whole place was plunged into darkness.   The side doors opened, and a procession began:  a group of people in robes, carrying large candles entered.   There were pallbearers, carrying a coffin.   Slowly, to the sound of a muffled drum beat, the group advanced.  The coffin was placed on trestles at the edge of the stage.   By then the audience was murmuring.  The glimmer of the candles revealed the coffin lid slowly opening.  Suddenly, a figure arose from the coffin.   It stepped up onto the stage, a long cloak muffling it.  The arms came up, the cloak billowing, and the mysterious figure gave the downbeat and we began to play the swirling figures that begin the work.  As the lights came up, Gordon tossed the cloak aside and the concert took off amidst a round of applause.   As we played, our stage manager scurried to the exit signs to remove the masking from them.

Gordon could have programmed concerts consisting solely of easily accessible classics.  But as an educator, he felt it was important to challenge the orchestra as well as the audience.   We played Stravinsky, Webern, Alban Berg, Takemitsu.  Sometimes we were playing the premieres of 20th century works.   He coordinated our concert programmes with the university radio station KUAC; if they were available (and sometimes he would provide them with the requisite recordings) they would play performances of pieces scheduled so that our audience could get familiar with they were going to be listening to.

But it wasn’t all about being avant garde.  There was a concern for the sensibilities of the audience too.  When we were scheduled to perform Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, Gordon was concerned about the rather down and depressing end of it.  We were performing this work in the depth of winter, and he started thinking about the effect this music might have on people as they left the concert and went out into the frigid dark.   His solution was we played the concert in reverse order from what is “traditional”:  we played the symphony first, then we had intermission, then we played the concerto, and finished with the bright and lively overture.

I don’t believe that Gordon Wright was a world famous conductor, although he certainly had the talent and ability.   What he did do was take a group of miscellaneous players of instruments and transform them into an orchestra.   His job was not only to meld us into an ensemble, frequently he had to teach us the music as well, acquaint us with the genre we were attempting to play, make us like an atonal work when what we loved was Mozart.  He used a combination of irritation, flattery, cajolery, shame, passion and relentless repetitious rehearsal to coax performances from us that were frequently astonishingly good.   It was these attributes that made him a great conductor, not just his clear beat and thorough knowledge of music.   

Gordon was a conductor, a violist, a composer, a music historian, an outdoorsman, an environmentalist, a father, a teacher.  He was one of the greatest people I have known:  possibly not famous, but truly a great man.  I wish him Godspeed on the next part of his journey through the universe.

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For once I can tell you the date of a story I am about to relate.  This is possible because the pictures that relate to the tale were taken at a time in my life when I was so organized that I actually wrote the date and place on the envelope before I filed it.  

The Arctic Chamber Orchestra did not always travel in ancient airplanes, or in flotillas of float planes, or by river boat.  Every once in a while, the funding situation was such that all we could afford was a bus.   1976 was one of those years.

If you look at a map of Alaska, even now you will notice that the vast majority of the state is devoid of anything that remotely resembles a road.  When we went on a bus tour, we were limited in the communities we visited. 

We headed south from Fairbanks, and the first place we were scheduled to perform was in Palmer, in the high school gymnasium.  It is never that much fun to perform music in a gym, they usually have an impressive echo.   The Palmer High School gym was no exception.  In fact, it had one of the most impressive echo systems I have ever encountered.  About 15 feet above the main gym floor, there was a balcony that went all the way around the basketball court, overhanging the ouside area of the room below.  This balcony had a very nice running track around the outside wall.

We arrived in plenty of time for a warm up rehearsal before the potluck dinner that the Palmer Arts Association was putting on for us.  It was during rehearsal that the echo of the gym presented us with certain performance challenges.  We were playing a symphony by Haydn (I believe), and in the last movement there was a grand buildup to a dominant fifth chord, which was followed by a radical key change  from G major to E flat as I recall.  The key change was a huge surprise following that dominant chord, and the effect was really quite cool when you did it in a concert hall.  In that gym, with the Huge D Major Chord with it’s seventh reverberating around the room, the effect of the orchestra hitting the surprising E flat major chord that ensued was totally lost in the complete mish-mash of god-awful conflicting harmonies.  

It was awful.  We stopped to reconnoiter.   Gordon had us make the crescendo buildup to the chord, and then we sat there, horrified and awed, while he timed the echoes as they bounced round and round the huge room.  It took a full 90 seconds for the sound to die away.  “Well, we can’t have THAT grand a grand pause,” he said.  “Maybe it won’t be so bad when there is an audience in here.”  Our strategy was to approach the chord at only a forte, rather than a fortissimo, wait a not-too-long interval for the sound to sort of die away, and then play on, hope for the best and bash on through.  That is exactly what we did.

That evening’s program was rather ill fated anyway.  All the echoing made the French overture we were playing less than crisp.  There was a “train wreck” in the Concerto.  After intermission, the beginning of the second half of our concert was punctuated by rhythmic thudding from the balcony.  Some intrepid jogger was availing himself of the running track up there.   One of the members of the Arts Association scurried upstairs to get the exerciser to desist, and we were treated to the discussion that ensued.   Apparently the person thought we were all done when intermission started, and decided it was safe to get in his run.  He was pretty peeved that we had started playing again.  He was gently ejected from the building, and we began the symphony over again.

The chord was negotiated without mishap.  It sounded rather horrible for a while as the harmonies clashed, but the audience didn’t seem to mind.  We finished up to rousing cheers and applause, packed up and got sent off to the homes we were staying in that night. 

The next morning, our first destination was Moose Pass, an extremely tiny community between Anchorage and Seward.  We were scheduled for a school lunch followed by a matinee concert for the kiddies.  Since we had plenty of time to get there, we played tourist along the way and visited the Portage Glacier.  Even so, we were quite early for our concert date, and so we found a way to enjoy ourselves while preparations for our lunch were completed:



The lunch was a school lunch, and the concert was a rousing success.  Of course, when kids get to get out of class for an Event, they are always quite enthusiastic.  However, most of their parents were also in attendance, and they liked us too.  We packed up, and got on the bus for the short trip to Seward, where we were scheduled to perform an evening concert.

We were on our way in plenty of time to get there, try out the hall, and sightsee a bit before the potluck and concert.  So, when we came around a corner and saw a line of cars stopped ahead of us, we were not overly concerned.  The road construction season was winding to a close, and we knew that the crews would be anxious to finish before the big freeze and heavy snows began. 

A closer look at the waiting vehicles put a seed of doubt into our minds.  None of the cars were running.  In addition, about 50 yards ahead of us in the queue there was a group of people who had seen fit to  collect some wood and build a fire in the road (which was gravel).  They were gathered around it in a convivial group, drinking the contents of their collective thermoses, which seemed to have been adulterated with some sort of antifreeze, judging by their evident high spirits.  

Our conductor exited our conveyance and walked off down the road to find out what was going on.  When he returned, he informed us that there had been blasting going on ahead, and the road crew was busy removing the rocks that had fallen from the road way.  They figured it would be quite a while before they were finished and we could be on our way.  Gordon had been able to prevail on the foreman to radio his counterpart on the other side of the blockage and get him to send someone down the road to Seward to apprise them of the situation vis a vis the orchestra. 

We sat around for a while, and then an impromptu dance band formed.  It consisted of a clarinet, a string bass, a trumpet, a fiddle player and someone banging on a bucket for percussion.  And we whiled away the time as we waited dancing Virginia Reels and other folk dances.  Some of the other occupants of vehicles joined in.   The tall bearded gentleman in the beret and blue jacket is our conductor, Gordon B. Wright.


Eventually, the overburden was moved, and the line of cars began to move.  The fire was extinguished, the bus loaded, and off we went, tardy once again.

Seward is a pretty small town, and the word of our predicament had been passed effectively.  The concert tinme was pushed back an hour, and we availed ourselves of the spectacular potluck the Arts Association had put on for us:  shrimp, halibut, and cracked king crab legs.  Replete, we performed another concert for another wildly enthusiastic audience.

And so to bed, farmed out to various members of the community.   As I fell asleep that night, I imagined that the gym in Palmer was still echoing faintly, the last notes of our concert still tumbling about in the corners of the balcony.

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After leaving Shungnak, the Arctic Chamber Orchestra boarded the freshly fueled C-46 and took off for Point Hope, Alaska.  We were scheduled to perform an afternoon concert there.   The local school was all prepared to feed us lunch, and we were booked into the Community Hall.

The flight was uneventful, for which we were properly grateful.  Our pilot had gotten his training at his father’s knee in the Alaska bush, and had his skills honed being a treetop flyer in Vietnam.  He knew better than to just locate the air strip and land.  You never know what conditions you will find:  caribou and moose on the runway, abandoned vehicles, mud holes.

When we got to the “airport” at Point Hope, he did his usual fly-by to check out the runway conditions.  Our sanguine expectations regarding our landing there took a nose dive as we noticed him fly over the runway, turn, fly over the runway, turn, fly over the runway, turn, and fly over the runway yet again before he actually started a landing pattern. 

Our misgivings were confirmed when the announcement began:  “Folks, it looks like the low end of the air strip is pretty wet.  I don’t want to get stuck, so when the wheels hit the ground I am going to be braking pretty hard.  Please make sure everything in the cabin is secured.  I’ll give you a fifteen second warning before landing and at that time I want you all to assume the brace position.”

We scrambled around making sure our seatbelts were nice and tight, and that all our bags and instruments were wedged in well.  When the terse “Get ready for landing,” issued from the intercom, we put our heads down and grabbed our knees.  “Braking pretty hard” was just a slight understatement.  It was more like slamming on the brakes and skidding to a shuddering stop, but no one got whiplash or brained by a falling flute, so we cheered our arrival.

Deplaning was fairly simple, since we only had to bring our instruments and garment bags, and the orchestra manager only had to get the tympani, music and music stands out of the cargo compartment.  We milled around for a while, a rather miserable bunch of musicians trying unsuccessfully to stay warm.   It was around 10 degrees F, and the 2o mph wind was gusting out of the northwest off the Chukchi Sea.  The pack ice had not quite frozen to the shore, but we could hear it grinding and booming off in the not too far distance.

A person showed up after a few minutes, and led us off to the school where lunch awaited us.  An ancient and battered pickup truck arrived for the tympani, basses, and music stands.  As we trekked off on the short walk towards town, we left our pilot, who had elected to skip lunch, pensively walking down the edge of the runway.

It has been my observation that the institutional mind almost always turns towards spaghetti when faced with feeding a large number of people, and Point Hope was no exception.  We “enjoyed” some rather bland spaghetti, which was notable for providing a lot more spaghetti than sauce.  The lonely specks of hamburger interspersed therein did nothing to change the carbohydrate to protein ratio.  I believe this insipid pasta was accompanied by limp canned green beans, but I could be wrong.  It’s been a long time since I ate that lunch.

It was during lunch that the really bad news was delivered to us.  Our orchestra manager had busied herself delivering the percussion and music stands to the community hall where we were scheduled to play directly after lunch.  She tromped in looking more than usually sour, and had a short, whispered conversation with Gordon Wright, our conductor.

“I have some good news, and some bad news,” he began.  This was his usual opening for announcements on ACO tours.  “The good news is that you don’t have to rush to eat this excellent repast.  We will not be changing into concert dress this afternoon.”  This was quite an occurrence.  One of the rules on ACO tours was we presented ourselves as a Real Orchestra, no matter how small, rural, and naive our audience was.  This meant that when we performed, the women wore long black formals, and the men wore tuxedos or black suits. 

Immediately, we sensed that the bad news was going to be very bad.  It was.  “Susan has informed me that the Community Hall has not had the furnace on since the last time there was a meeting there.  That was approximately two months ago.  The person who was supposed to get it started last night apparently forgot to do so.” 

It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what the bad news was, we had just walked over from the airport.  “The temperature in there is just slightly warmer than outside.  We can’t wait for the hall to get warm or we will be late for our date in Nome.”

A chorus of kvetching greeted this news.  “I know, I know.  I’m sorry for this.  We’ll just have to do the best we can.  Anyway, it seems pointless to change into our concert clothes since everyone will probably be wearing coats during the concert.” 

We finished our lunch, and sallied forth into the biting wind to walk over to the hall.  It was a rather large, open room, with very high ceilings, big enough for all 150 residents of the place to be seated with room to spare.  It was indeed very cold in there.  For a minute, it was possible to believe that the walls of the room had been painted with some sort of paint that had glitter in it, they sparkled so nicely.  Then you realized that what was sparkling was the frost that had condensed there as the room cooled after the last gathering.  Up towards the ceiling, the frost had melted, showing that the furnace that we could hear roaring away was making progress in warming the room.  It was too bad the stage was near ground level, and not up by the ceiling.

We were all very jealous of the first flute, for she had a pair of gloves that the fingers had been cut out of, and could wear them while she played.   It became quite clear very quickly that if you played a stringed instrument that went under your chin, you were going to have to take off your coat to do it.  The brass and percussion players were warm in their coats and hats and gloves.  The rest of the orchestra was not.  The audience was quite comfortable, as they could stay as bundled up as they needed to be, which they did.

We shivered our way through an abbreviated program, which was received enthusiastically by the complete population of the town arrayed before us.  Afterwards, we hustled back to the airport, and started loading up. 

The pilot looked worried, and collared Gordon for a  lengthy conference.  After a while, we were instructed to get on the plane, and before he entered the cockpit, the pilot gave us his news.

Apparently, about one third of the runway was a big swamp, and it had not frozen solid yet.  There was a crust over some of the mud, but beneath the crust was a morass, and it was not clear just how deep it was.  At any rate, he certainly did not want to find out by accidentally driving several tons of airplane into it.   This would be what one would commonly refer to as a Bad Thing. 

The airplane we travelled in was noted for its ability to take off and land in very short distances.  This is what made the C46 such a valuable asset during World War II.  We were lucky that we were not overly loaded:  there were no bombs or drums of fuel aboard.  It was not very clear just exactly how loaded we were.  As you may remember we had left Shungnak with a full load of fuel.  Our destination from Point Hope was Nome, which was quite a long way, so if dumping fuel was the answer, we would have to land at Kotzebue to get more gas. 

There were a couple of options.  One was to leave half the people at Point Hope, and run the other half over to Kotzebue, and then come back to get the other half of the orchestra, then stop in Kotzebue to load up the first group and head off to Nome.  The town of Point Hope was willing to let us wait in the school if we decided to do this, and there was actually a terminal building in Kotzebue, so no one would be freezing to death during all the shuttling.  However, all the running back and forth would use fuel and require us to get gas in Kotzebue.  The result of it all would make us extremely late for our concert date in Nome.  

The other option was to see if we could get off the ground fully loaded in the amount of runway that was available.  There were no guarantees that this was possible, but he had paced out the distance several times and was “pretty sure” there was enough runway.  Since we were the ones who would be in danger if option two was chosen, we were allowed to vote on the decision.  We unanimously chose option two.

Without any further ado, we received our instructions.  The pilot pointed out a flag he had positioned along side the runway.  This was his drop dead point.  If the wheels had not lifted off the ground by then, or if the airplane wasn’t at least feeling a lot like it wanted to shift from a lumbering ground beast to a creature of the air by the time we reached that flag, he was going to slam on the brakes for real (which made us wonder what he had done when we landed), and hope that we stopped before we ran into the mud at the end of the field.  If we did hit the mud, the likelihood that the airplane would tip forward and bury its nose in it was fairly high. 

We taxied to the extreme end of the runway.  The seriousness of the situation was made even more clear when, once we had gotten turned around, the pilot actually backed the plane up to the point where the tail was overhanging tundra and the wheels were barely on the solid gravel of the runway.  Once again, we were instructed to assume the brace position.  The pilot revved the propellers up until you could feel the plane straining against the brakes.

With the gay instruction “Think light!  And if anyone knows how to levitate, now would be a good time to do it!” the brakes were released and the plane leaped forward.  We were all in the brace position, so no one could watch for the all important marker flag.   It seemed like we bounced down the runway for an hour.  Time passes so slowly when you are holding your breath.  We waited for the precipitous braking, but instead, suddenly, the bouncing stopped and the nose of the plane tilted towards the sky.

We let out a rousing cheer and applauded loudly as the plane turned south towards our next performance in Nome.  Another day, another spaghetti dinner, another adventure safely negotiated.  Life as usual for the Arctic Chamber Orchestra on tour.


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