(NOTE: This was written before
Dave Hayes' Alaskan Reminisces
I recently retired and had time to sit and think about important past events and places. I realized that these recollections also might be of some interest to others. So, I decided to write them down. My experiences in Alaska were varied, and the interior of Alaska is a place that not many people have visited. I decided to start write these recollections just for fun, and because they donít exist. You might find some of the things that I have written about here a bit boring. But, it was my life, and not boring at the time. I first set out to write about the White Alice communications sites in Alaska. Apparently nobody has published a word about them on the Internet. They were an element of the Cold War, and other parts of the Early Warning systems story can be found on the Internet. As time progressed, I began to include more material about other aspects of Alaskan life in the 1950s. Since I expanded the material over the original concept, I will just trim it a bit if I ever post it on a web page.
In the mid to late 1950s, I worked for roughly five years in Alaska. Some of this time was when I was in the military, and some of it was shortly after discharge as a civilian. This was only a few years after the Korean War, and firmly into the Cold War era. These were remote sites that supported the military throughout Alaska by providing them with reliable communications.
When I started writing this, I found that I could not remember some of the place names that figured in my Alaskan experiences. I decided that I should try doing a little research to help prompt my memory. Perhaps I could find some maps and other information about those places on the Internet. This turned out to be pretty much of a letdown. Little could be found that related to the places where I had once worked. Many of those sites were closed in the 1960s and 1970s, victims of the newer satellite communications technologies. Now they seem to only live on as places that had, and will have more millions of dollars poured into environmental cleanup efforts. This came as a small surprise, but in retrospect I guess that I could have expected it.
Certainly it is true that in the 1950s and 1960s there was no really serious environmental consciousness on the part of most people, including me. Those remote sites dumped their hazardous wastes into the closest landfill. There was really nothing else to do with them. Ship them to a hazardous waste processing facility? Not possible, because four decades ago those kinds of dumps did not even exist. The reason for widespread environmental indifference in Alaska was fairly simple. Because of the remoteness, gasoline and oil were shipped in fifty-gallon drums to where they were needed. Shipping expenses were high, and the easiest and cheapest thing to do with empty drums is nothing at all. When I left Alaska in the early 1960s, there were empty fifty-gallon drums laying about everywhere that people had lived or worked. Because the cold weather preserves such things, deterioration is very slow. I sometimes wonder: is the Alaskan landscape still full of empty drums? Are they gone, yet? Who paid for the cleanup?
I managed to get slightly ahead of myself with this story. I will back up a bit to begin with the path that I took to get to Alaska. It all began something like this:
When I was a schoolboy in the city of Chicago, Alaska would have been near the bottom of the list of places that I might want to see. I had always liked the idea of seeing exotic places like Africa or Asia, but places with ice and snow were not on that list. The Chicago winters were quite bad enough. I enlisted in the Air Force in February 1955. After completing Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, I was assigned to Scott Air Force Base at Belleville, Illinois for additional technical training. At Scott, I completed my training as a Radio Relay Equipment Repairman. This training was pretty easy for me, since I already had a radio amateurs license. While others in my class were pondering the mysteries of Ohmís Law, I was daydreaming or gazing out the window. When the training was completed, I was assigned to Donaldson Air Force Base, South Carolina. When I arrived there, I was promptly flown in a "Flying Boxcar" to Louisiana, where my squadron was on field maneuvers. Field maneuvers are a kind of war game where your military unit is deployed into the field as if you were actually at war. You live in tents, eat cold food, take lukewarm showers, and generally are kind of miserable. Just like camping out. You can see that I really was a city boy back then, and I still think that staying in the Hilton is preferable to camping. In December, at the conclusion of the maneuvers, we convoyed in trucks back to Donaldson. I did not even get to unpack my bags when I was handed orders to leave for Alaska. Military units get requisitions from higher up to furnish people to be shipped about. It was up to them to pick the people. I suppose that I was selected to go to Alaska because I was the newest technician in the squadron. After all, nobody else wanted to go to such a nasty place, so send the new guy. My expectations were that Alaska was going be a really terrible place, full of ice and snow. Everybody told me so. I might even freeze to death if I were not very careful. It was going to be a lot worse than Chicago. There had to be some exaggeration in what I was being told, because it was a two-year assignment. If it was going to be really bad, it would have only been for one year. There were some one-year assignments in Alaska, but I got lucky.
After a Christmas leave spent in Chicago, I arrived at Elmendorf AFB near Anchorage, Alaska in January 1956. I had now been in the Air Force for just under one year, and my rank was now A/2c. It was now dark or twilight most of the time in Anchorage because it was midwinter. Uncle Sam had given me a pretty good set of arctic clothing, so I was not really cold when I went outside. I was assigned for a short time to perform duties on the main base. I donít remember too much about those duties, but I do remember learning how to play a mean game of blackjack in the barracks. I got pretty good at it, and made a few dollars. The squadronsí communications officer, a grey-haired captain, discovered that I was a ham radio operator. He was also one. He said that he had just the assignment for me. There was a semi-remote site not very far from the base. It was called the Ski Bowl Radio Relay Site. It got its name because it was not far from a popular Anchorage skiing area. He thought it was going to be good for me because there would be a place to operate a ham radio station. Unmentioned was the fact that there would be plenty of time to do it in.
The site itself was pretty small, but it came with a million-dollar view. It was, as I recall, at an altitude of about 3000 feet. We were situated almost on the edge of a bluff. To the north and west, the ground fell sharply away. To the north on most days, you could clearly see Mount McKinley about 200 miles away. To the southwest and west was the city of Anchorage and the two military bases, Elmendorf and Fort Richardson. Because of the intervening hills to the south, the Ski Bowl recreation area was out of view. To the east, the hills quickly rose a few hundred feet higher. In 1957, the Army would put a Nike anti-aircraft missile site up there. These were roughly comparable to the notorious North Vietnamese SAM sites of a later generation.
Our facility consisted of two Quonset huts at right angles sitting end to end, and another completely separate building housing the diesel generators. A Quonset hut is a prefabricated semi-portable building designed to be quickly assembled. Its roof is semicircular, made of corrugated steel, and curves smoothly up from the sides to the ceiling, and is about thirty feet long. Inside, it is like living in a horizontal half-barrel unless a false ceiling has been added. A large room addition at the junction of the two Quonset huts provided us with a moderate sized living room with a picture window, an office, and a small kitchen. One of the Quonset huts was used for equipment rooms, and a dining room. The other Quonset hut was used for living spaces. At the end of this hut a kind of garage was constructed. As I recall, there were about six of us Air Force personnel permanently assigned there. One of the Air Force guys was our cook. In the winter, another two Army men were assigned to live on the site with us. These people were there to drive Caterpillar bulldozers needed to keep our road open. Outside were the large antennas used to communicate with the next site. These looked something like large bed spring mattresses standing on their side. They were constructed of a coarse wire mesh attached to steel poles that were imbedded in the ground. The antennas were about 20 feet high and 20 feet wide. You could climb the antennas when they needed repairs. This often happened because of severe winter storms. The mesh was sufficiently coarse to be able to get your shoes into the holes. In front of the wire mesh was a number of dipole driven elements, connected together with copper tubing. One of the antennas was for transmitting, the other was for receiving. The military station that we relayed to was at Sparrevohn, Alaska, about 100 miles away.
Life on our site was pretty pleasant. We were far enough from the main base that we did not get a lot of military inspection teams or hassles. But, we could still go into Anchorage without too much trouble on the weekend. In 1955, Alaska was not yet a state; it was still a Territory of the U.S. Anchorage itself was a fairly small town. I think that the population was about 25,000. Today, it is about 250,000 people. Oil had not yet been discovered on the North Slope, and most working people were associated with the Air Force or Army bases. There was still a touch of the Wild West about Anchorage. You could walk up its main street, 4th Avenue, and see people carrying holstered pistols and shouldered rifles. Shootings were known to happen in the townís bars on weekends. There was a standing joke that you could get more prison time for the illegal shooting of a moose than you would get for shooting another man in a quarrel.
I wish that I could remember more of the names of the people that I worked there with. I can now only remember a few people. One personís name was A/1c James (Jim) Jarette from southern California. The site supervisor was a Staff Sargent Clark. He was from someplace like Tennessee. There was also a Mormon guy from Utah. He had the peculiar habit of walking around with a toothbrush in his mouth all day long. Later on, he would almost take my head off in a shotgun accident. Another person was our cook, who also came from Tennessee. One interesting person (whose name now escapes me) was a recent refugee from Hungary. He had fled during the Hungarian revolution with his parents, and almost immediately joined the Air Force. His English was still strongly accented.
We did have a UFO incident one midsummer evening. I mentioned the cook from Tennessee earlier. Now this fellow was one of those people that tended to discount the possibility of things like UFOs. His story was therefore much more credible to us. He decided one evening to go into town. When he came back from town, he was seen to be very agitated and pale. After some prompting, we pried the story out of him. He said that on the drive back to the site he had just seen a large rocket shaped craft. It was like nothing that he had ever seen before. It was floating stationarily about a quarter-mile away from him on the other side of a narrow valley. He said that there appeared to be stairs and a light from an open hatch coming out of the bottom of the vehicle. There was nothing on that side of the valley except for trees on a steep rocky slope. No roads, nothing. We needed to see this for ourselves. About three of us grabbed our carbines and set out in the jeep to do battle with the alien invaders. The cook absolutely would not accompany us. We had to drive about ten miles to get to the place where he said he saw the craft. When we arrived at the location, nothing at all was to be seen in any direction. We returned to the site, and gave the cook a hard time for pulling our legs. The real surprise came later. The next day, in the Anchorage newspaper, and on the television, there were many reports of UFO sightings made the previous evening. Apparently, a lot of people in the Anchorage area had seen a one or more UFOs. The incident was explained away by the Army as an unscheduled anti-aircraft gun firing exercise. There was no way that this could explain what the cook said he saw. Do UFOs exist? I donít know, but I knew one guy that is thoroughly convinced that they do. There were other UFO incidents later at other places.
†After the two years were up, I returned to the states.
Searching for a job shortly after Christmas, I found an ad in a Chicago newspaper. I donít recall the exact wording now, but it was for communications technicians in Alaska. The name of the project was White Alice. I had never heard of it when I was in Alaska in the military. I interviewed with the local recruiters for a job. As I recall, the interviewers were a psychologist and a technical type. I think the psychologist was supposed to decide if I could stand to be working at a remote arctic site without going bonkers from isolation. Of course, I got the job and returned to Anchorage in January 1959. About a year had elapsed since I had left Alaska. Meanwhile, Alaska had become the 49th state of the Union. While in Alaska when it was a territory, we called the 48 states "the states." After statehood was achieved, we called the remainder of the United States the "lower 48."
The company was ITT Federal Electric Corporation (FEC), with headquarters in Paramus, N. J. and a project office in Anchorage. My employment contract provisions were that I would get to fly back to the lower 48 at company expense once a year for vacation. I recall traveling first class on at least one of these vacations. There was a lot of government money floating around at this time, and many companies sent their employees first class. The salary was fantastic. It was about $12,000 per year, or twice the pay found in the lower 48 states for comparable work. Additionally, they would throw in room and board. You would have to put another zero on the end to meet that purchasing power today. I certainly was not short of money. FEC required three months of specialized training on the equipment that was used on their sites. This training covered the telephone and radio communications equipment in great depth. There also was an arctic survival course. The company provided arctic clothing and footwear. I really liked the classes, and ended up being first in a class of about 15 people.
Before very long, I realized that the White Alice sites replaced the very Air Force radio relay site that I had worked on only slightly more than a year before. The new systems used a newer technology called "Tropospheric Scatter." I wonít go into the technical details of that except to say that it allowed very high quality communications over a distance of 100 or so miles. Not very impressive today, but a pretty big breakthrough in the 1950s. At that time, telephone quality communications required having a repeater installed every 30 or so miles. Remember, there were no satellites or cell phones until decades later.
After the technical schooling, it was time to go to work on a site. Everybody in the class wanted to go to one of the choicer locations near Anchorage, or in the southern parts of the state. As the top guy in the class, I got to pick from a list of available work sites. I donít recall exactly why I picked Unalakleet, Alaska. Perhaps it was the exotic name. I think that this was a kind of on-the-job training site, too. Plus, to get a permanent assignment to a good location, you had to put in some time at the poorer remote locations. By the standards of the day, this was a pretty nice, not too remote site.
Unalakleet is in the western part of the state on the Norton Sound of the Bering Sea, about 100 miles southeast of Nome. It is an Eskimo village located at the mouth of the Unalakleet river. We called them Eskimos in the late 1950s, but they are called Inuit now. The White Alice site itself was about a half hour ride to the east of the village. It was situated on the top of a large hill with a clear view in all directions. Most White Alice sites were characterized by their gigantic square parabolic antennas, and this one was no exception. These antennas were 60 feet high, 60 feet wide, and painted a dead black. You could see them from many miles away. The site itself was a nice place to work in. It was spotlessly clean. We had regular floor sweeping, moping, and polishing schedules. There were diesel generator repairmen and a number of technicians to maintain and operate the electronic equipment. We had two cooks and a general purpose flunky called a "bull cook." I donít know how that job name came about, but it was well understood all over Alaska. His job was to clean up around the place, mop floors, but not near the equipment, dump trash, and generally help out as needed. The cooks and diesel equipment operators were mostly local Alaskan hires. They actually worked for another division of FEC called ITT Arctic Services. Most of the diesel repairmen, cooks, and bull cooks were older men compared to us technicians. We were largely in our middle twenties and single. Most of these older men were married. Virtually all of the electronic repair people were hired in the lower 48.
There were a number of entertainment activities available on the site. These would become much more important when winter arrived. We got 16mm movie films shipped in regularly, and we had a huge library of pocket books and magazines. I took up photography as a hobby. I made lots of pictures of the spectacular Alaskan sunsets, and some pretty good ones of the northern lights. We had a photographic darkroom that could be used by anybody with an interest. There seemed to be plenty to do in the summer. Alaskan summers here were warm, the days were long, and the great outdoors had its attractions. Bears often came near the site because of the gigantic blueberries that were found nearby.
While I was on this site, another rash of UFO incidents occurred in Alaska. Apparently at least one involved a sighting from a White Alice site. As a result, the company issued a long and wordy policy document concerning UFOs. The upshot of the document was that anybody reporting UFOs to the media was subject to be immediately fired. Additionally, there was a long and involved technical questionnaire to be filled out if one was sighted or photographed.
Fishing was one of the most popular summer recreations. The nearby Unalakleet river was full of Dolly Varden trout and large salmon. There were also black bears here, and you had to be a bit careful not to run into one by accident. The Air Force owned a fishing camp where we could rent a boat. We could travel up and down the river to find the best fishing spots. We would take the days catch back to the site, where the cooks would prepare it for lunch or supper. Fish that fresh does taste different. I landed one huge trout that was within an inch or two of being a world record.
There was also an Air Force radar station nearby that we supported via a microwave link. We technicians had to pull a rotating one month long duty there to support the equipment. On one occasion at the radar station, a USO tour arrived to entertain the personnel. One of the girls took struck up a conversation with me after the show. The site commander, an older Major who was clearly trying to make time with the young lady, resented the attention she was giving me. After my duty was over and I returned to the main site, the site manager called me into his office. He said that he had received a complaint from the military commander. The exact nature of the complaint was somewhat vague. However, as a consequence, I would not be returning there in the future. So it goes with the common military martinets.
There was a set of buildings left over from the construction of the White Alice site. These originally had housed the construction crews, and were somewhat better than tar-paper shacks. I took over a room in one of these for my radio amateur hobby. Now that I was in the big bucks, I purchased a brand new Hammarlund HQ-180 receiver, and a Hallicrafters HT32A transmitter for cash. These were pretty major expenses at the time. I have long since sold the transmitter, but I still have the receiver.
I donít remember too much about the people on the site. One that sticks out was the site clerk whose name was Howard Smart. He aspired to become a White Alice site supervisor. In my view, this was patently impossible, because the supervisors were always technical guys. Later, Howard went on to become a high level executive within FEC at Paramus.
There was not too much to do as a tourist in the village of Unalakleet. Being an Eskimo village, it had an atmosphere much different from a city like Anchorage. The first thing that you noticed was the dogs. And yes, empty oil drums were scattered everywhere. Everybody seemed to have dogs. These were mostly huskies and malamutes that were kept tied up far enough apart so that they could not fight. The second thing that was immediately visible was the salmon drying everywhere on outside racks. This salmon was eaten by dogs and people alike. It tasted pretty good, too. The homes were uniformly awful looking. Few showed any traces of paint, usually being a weathered wood color. At first I thought they were just low sheds, but soon realized that they were actually homes with people living in them. There were a few more modern looking buildings such as a general store and church. None of the streets were paved. They did have electricity on occasion. There was a local power company that operated in the evenings for a few hours if there was nothing wrong with the equipment. Unalakleet was also a dry town. It was prohibited to sell liquor to the Eskimos. Alcoholism was a terrible problem for them throughout the state. In cities like Anchorage, most of the drunks wandering the streets seemed to be Native Americans.
There came a time when I was reassigned. I donít recall the circumstances now. Perhaps it was a mandatory reassignment following a promotion, or perhaps it was voluntarily to gain points by working at a remote location.
To get to my new work location, St. Lawrence Island, I had to pass through the small town of Nome. I had to wait overnight there for the connecting flight. For some reason, private hotel rooms were hard to find. If I wanted a room at all, I would have to share it with someone else. Having no other real choice, I agreed. When I went to my room, I found out that there were actually about six beds in it, not just two. It was a pretty big room. Nobody at all was in the room, just other peopleís luggage laying around, and a card table. Clearly, people had been playing poker here. There was about $40 in cash laying in the center of the table. There were card hands around the table, but nobody was sitting there. It was as if they had all just gotten up and left. It looked pretty bizarre. After a short time, I left the hotel to see what there was to see in Nome. The answer was not much. Nome itself was only a few blocks long, with the usual bars and a few restaurants. I walked down to the famous beach. The gold rush first came to Nome when gold was discovered mixed in the beach sands. There were signs not to prospect for gold, because portions of the beach were already claimed. When I came back to my hotel room, the table was cleaned off, and there was now one person in the room. I asked him about the money and cards. He said that there had been a dispute during the card game, and nobody wanted to touch the money. Somehow, the dispute was peacefully settled. This was not always the case in Alaska in the 50s and 60s, when many people were armed. Perhaps this also accounts for the honesty that was the rule in most places. You could usually leave your things and expect to find them untouched when you returned.
St. Lawrence Island is about 90 miles southwest of Nome. It sits in the middle of the Bering Sea halfway between Alaska and Russia. The day I flew to the island, the sky was heavily overcast. We flew above the low cloud cover in a small twin engine airplane. After an hour or so, a radome appeared a mile or so ahead of us. It seemed to float directly on the top of the clouds. The plane banked and descended, turning downward through the clouds. I was disoriented, and thought that we were continuing to turn and descend when suddenly we broke out below the clouds. We were flying wings level, and heading directly for the long gravel runway. Later, I appreciated the skill of the pilot, since the site had no real navigational aids. The radome sat at the top of a high vertical cliff. The name of the place was Northeast Cape. Not a tree was in sight. Nothing but a cluster of buildings that was the Air Force facility. Visible on a hillside a short distance away was the White Alice site itself. The large black parabolic antennas stood out sharply against the tundra.
Being on an Air Force site, even a remote one, meant that the living would not be too bad. We had rooms in the officerís quarters, and access to the officerís club. The officerís club consisted of a single room with a bar in it. You could buy a drink for next to nothing, paying your bar bill through the honor system once a month. We did a lot of drinking there. They had movies weekly, and the occasional USO show. On one memorable occasion, the Eskimos from the nearby settlement agreed to put on a native dance for us. They had flat sealskin drums that looked like very large tambourines for use as musical instruments. They chanted and rhythmically thumped on the drums and came dressed in their handsome sealskin parkas. Now, the natives used their own urine to cure the sealskin pelts. When they went into a warm room, the odor from these pelts became quite noticeable as they warmed up. Some people bought these parkas to take back to the lower 48. They usually had to send them to Anchorage to have the parka deodorized so that it could be worn in more critical company. The dances themselves were a pretty impressive performance. The village chief gave a running commentary on the significance of the dances.
There was also a MARS station at the base. I seemed to be the only ham with an interest in using it. It was only really usable in the summer because the heating system was so poor.
A few incidents relating to the ongoing Cold War became known to me. One day, two army helicopters came to the island. Although we had an airport, no planes were permanently stationed there. Additionally, there was a contingent of native troops suddenly appeared and camped at the airport. Now this was pretty unusual. Their visit was caused by a local Eskimo on a trip reporting the appearance of a strange person with a heavily loaded dogsled. Ordinarily, two people meeting on the trail like this would stop and chat. However, this strange person took off with his sled at high speed away from the trail. When the incident was reported, the military security forces became concerned. They surmised that the sled and driver were Russian, and therefore up to no good at all. The helicopters spent a week searching the island, but nothing turned up, and the troops left.
A second incident concerned a Russian fighter plane. In addition to the AC&W squadron at Northeast Cape, there was another group of Air Force people. As I recall, they were some kind of "Security Squadron." These guys, officers and men, kept to themselves. They had a facility several hundred yards away from the main base and it was surrounded with barbed wire. After a while, word leaked out as to their purpose. Supposedly, they were a radio monitoring post that listened to Russian radio traffic, including that which directed fighter aircraft. Now at least one of the officers (and probably all) in the squadron was known to be fluent in Russian. This knowledge came about because one of the Civil Service diesel mechanics was also fluent in Russian. This individual claimed to have spent twenty or so years inside the USSR as a contractor on dam projects. These two persons sometimes chatted in Russian, although the officer was apparently not supposed to. On this particular occasion, the Security Squadron officers were laughing it up in the bar. According to them, they had intercepted communications from a fighter plane to his Russian ground controller asking for directions. When the ground controller told the plane to go one way, these guys would tell him to go in another direction. The confused pilot did not know who to believe, and might have actually run out of fuel.
We also had our UFO incident according to scuttlebutt in the Officers Club and Anchorage newspaper. A UFO had appeared on our radar coming out of the USSR to our northwest. It passed east of us, being also tracked by radar at the Cape Prince of Wales site due north of us. A glowing object was spotted at Nome heading southeast. It was seen in the interior if the state on a southeast course. Finally it was spotted near Anchorage still heading southeast. There were no further reports.
The natives had a small village a short distance away. They were primarily seal and walrus hunters. Some of them carved walrus ivory to sell to the military and civilians at the Air Force base. I still have a few walrus ivory trinkets that I bought from them. They lived in appalling conditions by civilized standards. The homes were mostly made of plywood and tar-paper. There were no running water or visible toilet facilities. They had a lot of dogs for use with their dogsleds. The snowmobile had not yet been invented. These were pretty animals, but they were really not pets. When you walked near them, all of their eyes would follow you. Slightly spooky, since they had the reputation of occasionally killing native children. When winter came, one of the Eskimos came to the Air Force site with his dog sled. It was kind of unusual in that the sled had a ship anchor. The driver threw it out to slow the dogs when he wanted to stop. I asked him how he made the dogs go left or right. I expected that the answer would be "Gee" and "Haw," which I understood to be the correct Eskimo commands. He answered "Port" and "Starboard." I never figured out if he was pulling my leg or not.
One spring we were told that the Eskimos had shot a polar bear. We immediately went down to see. Sure enough, there really was a dead polar bear. What we had not expected to see were dead cubs, too. Apparently the bear had come onto the island to have her cubs. The natives had found her, and then shot her. The cubs were under the mother. When the cubs began to move under her, they said that they thought the mother bear had come back to life, and had become frightened. I donít suppose that they understood the value of live cubs to a zoo.
The White Alice site consisted of a building housing radio equipment at one end and diesel generators at the other. Outside the building were the large black sixty foot parabolic antennas. Our site was situated about a quarter mile from the main base on the side of a hill. Further up the road going past our site was an aerial tramway. This tram went up the side of the mountain to the radar site itself. The radome that I first saw when I came to St. Lawrence was sitting up there. There was a nice view from the top of the surrounding countryside and the Bering Sea.
I donít remember too many of the people that I worked with at this site. There was John Victor, the site supervisor. John was a big guy with a good disposition. There was a technician named Bill Watson. I remember him for two reasons. He was a pilot that gave me a ride in his Piper Tri-Pacer aircraft in Anchorage. The second reason I remember him is that he bypassed the coolant flow alarm on a klystron. When the equipment was started without the coolant flow, it burst the expensive klystron tube putting fifty gallons of ethylene glycol coolant on the floor. That was a real mess to clean up. There was another technician with the unusual first name of Wilmot. He wanted to be a radio announcer when he left Alaska. He was always practicing in a voice that sounded pretty professional. It was nothing at all like his normal speaking voice. There was also the diesel operator. His name was Bob Blodgett. He was also a state assemblyman, or the mayor of Teller, or something else political. I remember his name because of an incident at the site. It was Bobís duty to test the emergency 160 kilowatt Buda diesel generators weekly. To do this, you had to pump fuel from an outside storage tank to the day tank inside the building, put a dummy load on the generator, start the generator and run it for an hour or so. The day tank should have been filled manually because of a known problem with the automatic pump shut-off. Instead, Bob put it on automatic instead of manual. I was working a shift in the site equipment room. The generator was in the next room behind a set of double doors. I started to smell smoke in the equipment room. I opened the doors to the diesel room to find a smoky haze filling the room. The floor was covered with an inch or so of diesel fuel, and the dummy load fan was pulling it up into the hot dummy load elements causing the smoke. I almost had a coronary. I opened the doors leading outside from the diesel room and dragged the dummy load outside into the snow. It was large, about 4 feet on a side, heavy, but on wheels. I went back in and shut down the fuel pump and stopped the generator. I was terrorized that a fire would erupt while I was in the room wading around in diesel fuel. I then phoned for help. The fire department and site supervisor finally came, and we, along with Bob, cleaned up the place. Nothing happened over the incident, which easily could have destroyed the site. It was just reported to the Anchorage office as a minor fuel spill.
One of the most important things at these remote sites is mail. The scheduled flights at St. Lawrence Island were only three times a week. These flights were heavily dependant on the weather. If the visibility was bad because of fog or clouds, or the winds were too high, the flight was canceled. The White Alice relay site had a good view of the gravel runway. From my vantage point at the relay station, I could monitor the teletyped weather traffic that was being sent out by the Air Force weather personnel. This weather information is what the airline used to decide if they would or would not fly. Now these weather guys wanted their mail, too. Beginning early in the morning of the day of the scheduled flight they often reported the weather as passable for flying. From the site, I could see that it was howling outside, without a chance of a plane landing. But since it was reported as passable, the airline would prepare for a flight. As the morning progressed, the weather reporters became more accurate in their reports. They knew that by the time the plane arrived, the report had to be accurate, or they would get a problem. I saw this practice finally cause an accident. Finally, as it came time for the plane to depart Nome, the reports became pretty close to reality, which by now had improved somewhat. The legal responsibility for the flight and the safe arrival rests solely with the pilot. As he approached the island, he would obtain the current conditions directly from people waiting at the runway. Nonetheless, there had to be a lot of pressure on the pilot to make a landing after a 60 minute flight, even if conditions were marginal. Either that, or go back to Nome to return another day. I decided to watch the landing itself from the site using binoculars. There was a very strong crosswind at the runway, in the neighborhood of 25-30 knots. Usually, the flight from Nome first flew down the length of the runway without trying to land. This was common practice so that the pilot could judge the crosswind for himself to see if it was safe. On this occasion, the pilot made a straight in approach without testing the crosswind. The plane seemed to touch down safely. As the plane slowed and the tail dropped, the crosswind suddenly lifted the wing. The pilot was unable to correct, and the plane then swerved off the runway and down an embankment. The plane hit on its nose and started to go over onto its back. It finally fell back with its tail almost on the runway. The personnel at the airport ran to the plane to get the passengers out of the rear door. Simultaneously, people ran to the nose of the plane to open the compartment where the mail was stored. Fortunately, there was no serious injuries or fire, and the mail was saved. The pilot had to stay with us for about a week. This was how long it took for the weather to improve enough for another plane to come in. I understand that he was fired when he returned to Nome. The plane was still sitting there when I left the island for the last time.
This was a bad week for me, too. The same day that the plane crashed, my brother called to say that our father had died in Florida. Because no planes could come or go from the island, I was unable to attend the funeral.
FEC had been the successful White Alice project contractor up to this point. I really liked them as a company. They treated their employees well. The pay and benefits were first class, and there was a lot of company loyalty among the technicians. But, the White Alice project was up for competitive bidding. In the competition for the White Alice contract, FEC was outbid by the RCA Service Company. RCA contacted each of the FEC employees and made them a job offer to stay on. The salary would be slightly less, as would be the benefits. But, FEC also made almost all their employees job offers to leave Alaska and not work for RCA. I was made two offers by FEC. One was to go to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and the other was to go to Thule, Greenland. I had never heard of Vandenberg, and besides, I liked the Alaska living. So, I accepted the offer to go to Thule. My logic was that Thule was probably a lot like the places I had worked on in Alaska, right? Wrong!
I donít recall if they sent me to school before sending me to Thule. In any event, the project was named Dewdrop. It consisted of a tropospheric scatter link from Thule to the DEW line site DYE-MAIN. This was the longest tropo link in the world. It was about 600 miles long. Unfortunately, this seems to have stretched technology a bit too far, because it was plagued with noise. The acronym DEW stands for "Distant Early Warning." There was additionally a link from the tropo site to the main base at Thule. I was assigned to the main base although I really wanted to work at the tropo site. It did not take too long to realize that Thule was not a bit like any of the Alaskan places that I had been. First off, Thule was situated in a desert. It may be hard to relate an arctic location to a desert, but it seems a fair description: There was not a lot of precipitation, and there was a lot of bare ground. Almost nothing seemed to grow there. The buildings at Thule were built on pilings. This was because the ground was permanently frozen. If a building were to warm the ground, it would thaw and heave thus damaging the building. All the pipes to and from the buildings were insulated and ran above ground. The building was heated with steam running through these pipes. There was not a lot of available water at Thule. Waste water from the showers was used to flush the toilets, just like on a warship. Thule also had terrible storms. The winds and blowing snow would rage until it was quite dangerous to be out for any reason at all. They called the degrees of a storm "Phases." There were three defined Phases. In Phase three, you could not go outside for any reason at all. Emergency food was kept in all the buildings because of this. I slept on the top of a desk on more than one occasion at Thule because of storms.
Thule is so far north that the Northern Lights are usually seen to the south. In Alaska, they were still to the north, or sometimes overhead. At Thule, in the middle of winter at noon, you can go outside and look and see the stars. It was really bleak in the wintertime. In the summer, when the snow finally melted, there still was nothing at all to see. No trees, just rocks and bare ground with a bit of lichen and low grasses here and there. The first time that I saw an Arctic hare, I could not judge its size. It seemed enormous, actually larger than the Arctic fox. Later I found out that it really was larger than the foxes that somehow managed to hunt it.
I worked for eight months in Thule beginning in August 1960. If I would have stayed eighteen months, it would have been free of U.S. income tax. But, I was not in the mood to stay. I contacted the RCA office that had taken over the White Alice contract in Alaska. They made me an offer to return to Alaska at slightly less money than I making before I left. I resigned from FEC, left Thule, and returned to Anchorage.
I can truly say, that of all the places in the world that I have worked, Thule is the only one that I really did not like. Every place else had a sufficient number of saving graces that life was much more enjoyable.
When I returned to Alaska in April 1961, RCA seemed pretty glad to see me. I think they really needed experienced people. FEC had apparently managed to take most of them away. There were stories that at some sites, RCA people got off an airplane, and the whole FEC technical crew got on and flew off. The RCA people then went onto the site, with nobody at all to show them the ropes. In the time that I was gone, RCA had managed to become unionized. Membership in the union was compulsory. There had been one attempt to unionize under FEC, but it had been soundly defeated. FEC employees really liked their company. RCA had a technical training school in Anchorage, too. Unlike FECís, theirs was only for a single week or two. I was astonished. There were people up fresh from the lower 48 with no applicable experience on this kind of equipment. They could not learn enough in just a week to do much of anything. They had to rely on on-the-job training to learn their skills. I was sent to one of the sites with the most equipment; Kalakaket Creek.
I was happy to be back in Alaska. The Kalakaket Creek White Alice site was about 20 air miles south of Galena, Alaska. There were no roads to the site from civilization, but we did have a 4000-foot gravel runway. I thought it was a nice place, too. We were a stop on a daily scheduled airlines flight, serviced by an F27 aircraft. Alongside the runway was a wrecked B-24 bomber. All the instruments and engines had been removed. The local story was that it had originally belonged to the Morrison-Knudsen Company. They had the original contract to build many of the White Alice sites. As the story went, the aircraft, full of construction workers returning from a weekend on the town in Fairbanks, had crashed on landing. The runway was situated on a hilltop, and the aircraft had come in just a bit too low. It wiped out its landing gear, and skidded down the runway. There were apparently no serious injuries, but the plane was written off.
While we did not have the storm problems of St. Lawrence island, the airline pilots did have to land on a gravel runway. In midwinter, this was a firm hard packed snow surface. In midsummer it was a hard gravel surface. What the pilots were concerned about were the runway conditions in the spring thaw. Before the aircraft could land, we had to take a truck down the length of the runway to see if it left any noticeable ruts in the surface. If so, it was too soft for the aircraft to land. The problem for the F-27 plane was that the landing gear would kick up rocks and gravel, marring the undersides of the wings. More than once the pilot opened his window to yell out at us about the reported runway condition. Well, we said, thought it was better than that. We wanted our mail, too.
Because there were no roads, everything had to be brought in by airplane. This included the diesel fuel for the generators. Diesel fuel was brought in by a C-46 aircraft that had been converted into a tanker. During the summer, this plane would arrive and unload into the tanker trucks which we used to fill our main tanks. This aircraft seemed to have seen better days. It was unnerving to be around an airplane that was visibly leaking diesel fuel as it sat on the ground. It took a lot of aircraft trips to fill our storage tanks.
It did not take long to realize that a very different technical ball game was operating on the sites. The first time that I pulled a shift I thought that something was seriously wrong with the equipment. Under FEC, you could literally talk from one end of the system to the other with unsurpassed clarity. Under the new RCA management, the phone lines were full of noises. I could not believe that they could be so degraded and that the government customers would not object. But they really did not. The lack of training on the part of the new people was really showing. There were so many things that they just did not know, and many of them were almost afraid to touch the equipment. How to improve the system by scheduled maintenance was one thing they seldom learned. As a technical person, I was really offended. There was an object lesson in all of this that I did not understand or appreciate until much later. Simply put, the government customer was continuously changing personnel. The newer military officers came to accept the status quo as they found it as a normal condition. Ignorance is bliss.
Not far from the site, the only local road went down to the runway, past a landfill (which is now on an EPA list), and then to a summer fishing cabin. The cabin had been built by the construction contractor. I assume that he had sufficient excess profit and time that they could construct luxuries for themselves. This cabin was near a small stream that had pretty good fishing. The cabin had recently suffered from an animal attack. Reputedly it was damaged by wolverines. Not that one wanted to spend too much time fishing here because of the mosquitos. These insects are unbelievably annoying in parts of Alaska. You had to wear a jacket even in the summer warmth, because they could easily penetrate a shirt. All exposed flesh had to have some liberal sprays of insect repellant. These repellants would be good for a half-hour or so, then the mosquitos attacked again. You would soon literally gather a cloud of mosquitos around your head. We had two dogs on the site. These poor animals would also gather a cloud of mosquitos around them. The dogs were mostly protected by their heavy fur, except around their eyes, mouths, and paws. We tried to help the dogs by applying repellant to them. They could not stand the smell of the repellant, so they had to suffer with the mosquitos.
There were a lot of black bears around this place in the summer. Often, it would be a sow with cubs. You had to exercise extreme caution around these, as they could be dangerous if you got close. One of our dogs had the hobby of killing ground squirrels. It must have been a hobby, because he never ate them. He killed them by first catching them, then tossing them into the air until they expired from hitting the ground. By late summer, the grounds around the site were covered with the desiccated bodies of these dead squirrels. One day, a bear walked onto the site and began eating the dead squirrels. This put the dog into a barking frenzy, obviously because he had not given the bear permission to eat his squirrels. Now the dog was not dumb enough to attack a bear head on. Instead, he worked his way to the rear of the bear and gave him a good nip in the rump. Immediately, the bear took off after the dog, chasing him for thirty yards or so. The dog continued for a much longer distance. The bear then returned to eating the squirrels while the dog continued to bark at a more respectful distance. The dogs usually began barking when they saw approaching bears. Surprisingly, the bears seemed to take no notice at all of barking dogs. But, if a person yelled or talked loudly at the bear, this was usually enough to cause them to run off.
There were also many crows or ravens in the summertime. These also made a grab for the dogís dead squirrels. These birds seem to deliberately tease the dog by pecking at his squirrels. As the dog made a catlike approach toward the raven, the bird would wait until the last moment then fly up out of reach. The bird then moved off a dozen yards or so, and resumed pecking at another squirrel while always keeping an eye on the dog.
These dogs were really outside dogs. They had very heavy coats in the summer. They were not even housebroken. In the dead of winter, even during snowstorms, they stayed outside. You could see them during a snowstorm as a lump under the fallen snow.
Now while I liked Alaska, anybody can get a midwinter dose of cabin fever. In December 1961, Federal Electric posted advertisements in the Anchorage and Fairbanks papers looking for skilled technicians to work on tropospheric scatter systems in Europe. Well, they certainly came to the right place at the right time. They were holding interviews in a Fairbanks hotel room. I decided that Europe might be a nice change of pace. I went to Fairbanks on the morning flight, telling my supervisor that I would return on the evening flight. This would allow ample time to interview and then return for my regular shift. I went with several other technicians that were also interested. As luck would have it, a sudden storm followed by record cold temperatures shut down the airlines. Nobody flew anywhere for three days out of Fairbanks. For a time, we had a charter flight arranged, but at the last minute the pilot declined because it was too cold. I finally was able to hitchhike onto a Wein Alaska maintenance flight headed through Galena. There, we were able to charter a ski-equipped Cessna 180 to get us back to the site. I fully expected that my supervisor would have a fit when I returned. He was not happy, but not nearly as angry as I expected. I told him that I had accepted the FEC offer, and would be leaving in January. A complication was that under the current union contract, a person would have to be on the payroll on the last day of December to receive vacation pay. RCA did a survey to learn which people were leaving, and went on to terminate most of them forthwith. Since I had been on the list of people leaving, but had not received any orders to report to Anchorage to be fired, I called the head office. The story that I was told was that they wanted me to wait until almost the last day of the month, then come to town. They assured me that I would get my vacation pay. I thought about this doubtful offer for a few microseconds, and told them that I was coming down in two days. One would have to have recently fallen off a turnip truck to believe their promises to pay accrued vacation. If I was not going to get vacation pay, then I certainly was not going to miss Christmas at home in Chicago. I shipped my stuff, packed my bags and went to Anchorage and collected my final paycheck.
That ended my time in Alaska, and is the end of my Alaskan reminisces. I have never been back. I did go overseas after leaving Alaska, after a short stint putting Titan missiles into silos in Washington state. This was another rush Cold War project just before the Cuban missile crisis. Next, I was asked to perform a survey of antenna systems in Pakistan and Greece. This took me overseas, and when I was done, I ended in Germany. I ultimately worked about three years in Europe, getting married and having a child in the process.
When we returned from Europe, we wanted to move to sunny California to live. Although neither of us had ever been there, it had the reputation of being the promised land. We put our baby son into our small sports car, and departed Chicago shortly after Christmas in 1965. I interviewed for several jobs in the Los Angeles area. As coincidence would have it, I hired on again with Federal Electric at Vandenberg Air Force base, California. That is same place I refused to go to in 1961. I ultimately became one of those rarities; a long term company employee of thirty-six total years. Thirty of those years were at Vandenberg. I did not plan it that way, it just happened.
From time to time, I think with nostalgia about Alaska. I still wonder if there is anything to be found out on those remote sites except empty concrete slabs where the buildings once stood. Someday, I might go have a look.