In April, my grandson Tommy turned 10, so I wanted to give him a present that was meaningful to me and hopefully to him. I gave him the circular, metal pan with the sloping sides that I had used to try my luck at panning for gold back in the ’50s in the streams around Fairbanks, Alaska. We had some adventures while stationed there, and herewith is one of them that I described for him.
In 1955 I was a newly minted second lieutenant just out of OCS and Officers Personnel School in Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. I received orders to report to Headquarters Alaskan Air Command at Ladd Air Force Base in Fairbanks, Alaska, to be reassigned to a remote site. This was probably a radar site situated in the northern part of the Territory where the only way in and out was by light aircraft. It was an 18-month hitch because no wives were accommodated.
I flew to Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage in a huge transport, sitting in a “bucket seat” staring at the wheel of a huge truck. More importantly, it was warm because I was in stateside dress. I would get my Arctic issue when I was assigned at Ladd near Fairbanks.
After arriving at Anchorage, I was weathered-in for a number of days, and my only obligation was to report to the Headquarters Squadron daily for assignment orders pending satisfactory flying conditions for a reporting date. The only problem, I didn’t get my Arctic gear until I received orders, so I was running around town in my stateside blues and low-cut shoes.
The buildings on base were all connected by tunnels, which were far more comfortable and safe.
I have forgotten how many days I was stuck in Anchorage, but I ran out of money and went to a bar/restaurant (there were a bunch) and tried to cash a check. The owner came out with a big wad of checks in his hand and said he would cash mine when these checks cleared. But he set me up with a drink on the house. I then went to the Elks Club and tried there because I had a membership card from the Wheeling club. The manager came out, looked at me — a young looking second lieutenant in stateside blues, a transient officer — wanting to cash a check on the Half Dollar Bank in Wheeling, W.Va. With my check in his hand, he laughed and said it was all so absurd that it had to be true and OK’d the check. He then gave me a welcome to the Anchorage Club, a gift certificate worth two drinks and a sandwich. So I had a place to go besides the officers club, mess hall and the BOQ.
It was a Sunday, and I reported to the Headquarters as I did every day. Of course, the place was almost empty, so I sat on a couch in a wide hallway outside “my” office, which was closed. The base commander was in his office in “civies” and was in a lively discussion with another officer who was in uniform pacing back and forth complaining that he couldn’t run his squadron with pilots acting as adjutants. They were on a first-name basis. The door was open, and I heard the general say in an exasperated manner “Damn it, Charlie, if I had one I’d give him to you!” The colonel turned in his pacing toward the open door and saw me sitting in my blues with my orders folder in my lap and in utter frustration shouted, “What is your AFSC Lieutenant?”
Startled by this question out of the blue, I replied “3050, sir,” to which the colonel said, “What’s wrong with him?” The general said, “For Christ’s sake, take him and get out of here so I can get some work done. We’ll do the orders tomorrow.”
I had just become the Squadron Adjutant of the 720th Fighter-Bomber Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base located at Mile 26, Alaska.
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On the way over to Eielson in his car, my new CO, Colonel Graham, was as happy as a kid with a new toy. I would have key housing, two bedrooms because we had our daughter Peggy. Because I was Key Personnel, I was entitled to a phone. To cap it all, he said with great importance, “I’ll even see that you have all the hangers you need!” (I found out later that no one packs clothes hangers so they were a real luxury item).
And your grandmother and our little Peggy could join me. So our lives changed because I was dumb enough to report on a Sunday.
We spent two years in the Territory of Alaska. Among our adventures, we mailed Christmas cards postmarked the “North Pole,” saw the bears swat the big salmon out of the creeks on to the banks, hunted moose and bears for fresh meat. I played a round of golf at midnight on a course with sand greens, where, if you hit a moose with a tee shot, you hit again, no penalty. We fished with spinning reels and fly rods. One could catch enough pan-sized grayling for breakfast in less than a half hour on a camping trip. But cleaning them was difficult because the water was so cold it would numb your fingers in minutes.
It was so cold during the winter that it was unnecessary to use cinders or anything else on the road, so everything remained a pristine white — even the wires strung on the poles were thickened by a half inch of moisture frozen to them, undisturbed by any wind.
One had to be extremely careful pushing a car or receiving a push as the big metal bumpers were brittle with cold and would crack with a loud ping. Every housing unit was equipped with an Alaskan Hitching Post — that is, two electrical outlets, one for the head-bolt heater to keep the oil from turning to Jell-O, and the other for the battery charger so it didn’t freeze and crack.
In the summers, the Land of the Midnight Sun, we would find ourselves on the back steps talking to neighbors and drinking coffee after putting kids to bed and wondering why we were so tired only to discover it would be after midnight.
On weekends, we would pack picnic baskets and run to the Salcha River to fish, read and try our luck panning for gold in the shallows. It was truly exciting to see tiny specks with a bright sparkle that we would carefully remove from the pan and put in a bottle similar to a test tube.
I was totally occupied while fly fishing when Peggy saw a bear sniffing the air on the opposite bank and watched it amble off. Sometime later, when I was concentrating on trying to cast a lure to a certain spot, Peggy reported with great delight, “Here comes the bear!” He or she had crossed the river upstream and was coming toward us a pretty good clip. Another family was with us, and we raced and scrambled to get into the station wagon. We returned later to retrieve our belongings. The picnic and leisure spot where the ground had been covered with blankets was fairly well messed up where our friend was trying to find the fried chicken I am certain he had smelled from across the river.
So, Tommy, your 10th birthday present, my gold pan from Alaska, represents wonderful memories of when your grandmother Mary Ann and I lived in the Territory of Alaska. And I am certain you will have your own “gold pan” tales of travels and adventures to tell your grandchildren. I know you will have them.
• Bill Hogan, born and raised in Wheeling, W.Va., is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and worked in the worlds of finance, real estate and alcoholism rehabilitation. Bill has six children and three grandchildren. He and his second wife, Susan Hogan, served in the U.S. Peace Corps from 1987-90 in Benin, West Africa. Now retired, he is a trustee of the Schenk Foundation, an artist, a writer and self-proclaimed “highly skilled dispenser of bull.”