Special Report

Memories of Wasilla

It's a tough place all right.

By 9.5.08

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In the summer of 1983, I worked for four straight months, six nights a week, in a rock and roll band that played the lounge of the Sheraton Anchorage Hotel. I had gotten a kidney transplant two years before, and I was in flourishing good health.

I was also drinking a lot, so much that I had to exert teeth-gritting willpower not to get so drunk that I couldn't stand up on the bandstand in our later sets.

Then I had a great idea: I'd take a little speed to even out the alcohol.

Something stopped me. Something made me say, "Wait a minute -- you've done this kind of thing before and lost your kidneys. Don't do it again."

Mid-summer, I walked into an AA meeting, and I haven't had a drink since.

WASILLA COMES INTO PLAY because, having sobered up, I suddenly found myself with quite a lot of money on hand, in cash. That's one of the cultural markers of Alaska: having a lot of money. Having a lot of money young. And, in Alaska, just about everybody flies. So I decided to take flying lessons, something I had always wanted to do.

A friend of the band put me in touch with a flying instructor named Mark. Mark told me to meet him at the Wasilla airport Sunday at 9 a.m. -- well before most of my bandmates woke up; I'd have plenty of time to use the band's only car. I slept maybe three hours that Saturday night, popped out of bed clear-eyed and sober, and fired up our old Rent-a-Wreck for the 40 mile drive northeast along the Cook Inlet to Wasilla.

Wasilla appeared, as I recall, right on Route 3, as a single line of modest -- not to say ramshackle -- stores and gas stations on the right hand side of the road. I cruised the entire town in a matter of minutes, seeing no airport. So I stopped at the Iditarod Cafe, an all-American kind of diner and grill festooned with souvenirs of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, and asked where the airport was.

"Right out there," said the man behind the counter, pointing to the back door.

I opened the back door, stepped out, and nearly got beheaded by a roaring tail-dragger, taxiing on the gravel.

AIRPORT INDEED. ALL OVER THE BUMPY GRAVEL, I found airplanes tied down, parked, and in use, many of them requiring a manual propeller pull-through to get started. I hoped I wouldn't have to do that. I soon found Mark, who was bedding down three of his sled dogs near his tie-down site.

Mark and I climbed into his Cessna 152, me in the left-hand seat. Mark showed me how to taxi and directed me to the gravel runway.

"I'm supposed to call for clearance to take off, right?" I asked.

Mark laughed.

"There's no tower here," he said. "Take off!"

For the rest of that summer, I flew every Sunday, ultimately getting about 13 hours in the air. I did things student pilots never get to do in the lower 48. I learned stalls and spins, we hedge-hopped over marshes, we flew into steep canyons where we saw abandoned gold claims on impossibly sheer slopes, we flew around Mt. McKinley.

ALASKA MAKES ITS MARK ON YOU. It changed me, in four short months. I actually thought about staying. The singer from our band did stay.

So what is Alaska, and how can Alaska help us understand what Sarah Palin is all about?

It's big, as big as the western states put together. Yet the population is so small, you run into the same people everywhere. We met our nightclubbing friends in Homer, at the State Fair, a hundred miles from Anchorage. In the summer, the roads and the parking lots are pitted and scarred with huge potholes and ruts that no one bothers to fix. Most of the year, snow covers the surface, and people drive on the snow.

Houses in Alaska have long front steps leading up to high porches, to afford entrance above deep snow. At apartment houses, every parking space has an electric outlet for a headbolt heater, to keep your engine warm overnight. Small plane engines sometimes quit because the oil has frozen into a lump in the middle of the sump.

People came to Alaska young to make money, and they did. In four or five years, making big bucks, they turned around and found themselves married, with a boat, a plane, a house, and two or three children -- at age 27. There is a lot of divorce, a lot of drinking, a lot of violence. During the long winter dark, locals speak of getting "a Denali divorce" -- one spouse shooting another.

In virtually every passenger car I rode in, there was a gun in the glove box. In my AA group, newcomers doing their Fourth Step, their personal moral inventories, often had to confront things like: I set fire to my restaurant in Idaho for the insurance, and my partner died in the fire. Or, the cops had me on ten counts of grand theft auto and I ran to Alaska instead of showing up for my arraignment. Alaska is a long, long way away. You can get gone up there, and many people do.

All the moose stories are true. The first time I rode in a car with a local, she had a moose heart in the back seat for her dogs. One of my AA buddies told a story about shooting a moose in the woods across the Cook Inlet as dark was falling, having to fly his float plane back before complete darkness socked him in, then flying back the next day to dress out the moose -- and not being able to find it. Every summer an old tame moose turns into a pet in metro Anchorage, and everybody knows it's going to turn out badly, because, when hunting season opens, someone will shoot it.

It's a tough place, and Sarah Palin's career in such a tough environment tells us vast volumes about her toughness and her character. Many Alaskans work two- or three-week shifts all day long, then get a week or ten days off. They line their windows with aluminum foil in the summer so they can sleep. P-Diddy to the contrary, there is plenty of crime in Alaska -- anywhere you find big money, you also find organized crime. In the seventies, a private investigator I knew helped bust up a Mafia ring that was skimming money off the original pipeline project. I heard some of his surreptitious recordings. They were scary, and they involved plotted murders.

IN A WAY, THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA caricature of Sarah Palin as a kind of Beverly Hillbilly comes close to the truth. In fact, she represents something much nobler. In Palin, it is almost as though a 19th-century American -- Bill Cody, Bigfoot Wallace, Annie Oakley -- had stomped onto the shallow modern stage and started kicking up dust. Americans love their big-hearted, bigger than life heroes. We have a long tradition of snooty Easterners getting sniffy about frontiersmen in the parlor.

Hooray for Sarah Palin. We haven't had anyone so interesting on the national scene in a long, long time.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.