What unusual circumstances led to my beginning the great Alaskan adventure? Well, it all started with music.
After many years of working in offices, I finally freed myself from the bondage of working for someone else. I married a man named Alan Love who got a job teaching at Southern Colorado State College in Pueblo, Colorado. Being a faculty wife, I could take any courses I wanted, and they didn’t cost me anything. I took whatever sounded interesting.
I met many other students, and fell in with some who really liked to play music. By then, I’d purchased a five-string banjo and showed signs of becoming competent on it. One of the students, Mike Dunn, who played guitar and sang, became my music partner, and we began playing lots of small “gigs.” We even ended up making an l.p. album.
Our music career moved forward when we got our first full-time job. We played in the bar of the Imperial Hotel in Cripple Creek every night after their fine and
funny melodrama. This job lasted all summer.
We added a third person to our group. Over time, the other members of the group changed, but Mike and I stayed together. Then, one evening we met a young man named Paul Scheberle when we played at a lounge in Sterling, Colorado. Paul, known as “Schepp,” happened to be an excellent drummer and joined our group when we completed that job.
With this new trio, I found us an agent, who lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He began booking our trio in lounges in several states. For the next couple of years he kept us busy. We stayed on the road full-time for a year and a half at that time. Such adventures! But, that’s another story.
In the spring of 1969, we played in a small, friendly bar/restaurant in a town close to Chicago. When that job ended, we had no more bookings. Schepp told us he had a friend he used to drum for who now booked groups in Alaska. Did we want to go there?
Of course! We immediately became excited, and Schepp got in touch with his friend. In no time, he had booked us to play in a place called the “Triangle Bar” outside Fairbanks.
It was summer in Alaska — our first experience with a day that lasted all night. The bar remained open 21 hours a day. By law, they had to close for three hours. Our entertainment shift ran from 11:00 at night until 5:00 in the morning.
Our employer provided us with a small house. Since we still enjoyed daylight at 11:00 pm, we walked to work, and then walked home again at 5:00 am. What little bit of half-light they called “night” in those parts occurred while we were working, so we never saw darkness the whole time we were there.
We found Fairbanks to be an interesting place. At that time it was not an attractive town. It must have been nicer in winter, when snow covered the vast amount of old cars and machinery, building supplies, or other detritus stashed in any available free space. After all, Fairbanks existed far from anywhere, and something from the junk pile might come in handy someday.
On our walk to work we passed a couple rows of large empty boxes, raised on pedestals. I’m not sure what they were made of, though they looked like concrete. I asked someone their purpose. This person said that they were for storing bodies when someone died in winter. Because of the permafrost, the ground could not be dug up until spring.
We learned that the man who owned the bar awaited trial in jail, and his wife and her friend ran the place in his absence. The owner had shot a man who walked in and took a bottle of booze.
It was fortunate that the bar owner had stayed in his doorway when he shot the intruder. Since he remained in his building, the jury acquitted him because he dealt with a trespasser. However, he was gone for the entire time (six weeks) that we worked at his bar.
When the bar closed for a couple of days, the woman who assisted the owner’s wife said she would take us on a fishing trip for that time. She took us to the Alaska Railroad, and we boarded the train. We rode for several miles out of Fairbanks, and then, in the middle of nowhere, the train stopped.
We got off, and noticed a well-traveled path leading off into the woods. We hiked for about 20 minutes, until we came to a long, one-story log cabin built close to a slough (a channel of water leading to a larger water source.)
The man who lived there happened to be a retired railroad employee. He had built the cabin and lived there year-round. It was a solid little place; a good thing, as he showed us gouges in the wood next to his window, put there by a bear who wanted in.
The old man took us out on the slough, pushing his small boat with a pole, and we fished for grayling. We caught a good number of them, and then returned to the
cabin. In an open, framed structure, he had a large outdoor grill, and he cooked those fish for us on the spot.
That fish, accompanied by a fresh salad from his garden, was delicious.
The next day we had to catch the train back to Fairbanks. At the scheduled time, we walked out to the tracks and waited. We didn’t have to wait long. Soon the train chug-chugged toward us, and our hostess flagged it down. When it stopped, we boarded and headed back to town.
We had other Fairbanks adventures. Once we journeyed up the Steese Highway to Circle Hot Springs, where we spent the night at the now-closed resort. The open-air, heated pool was magnificent. We spent as much time soaking up the hot, mineral-laced water as we could. It was superb.
Many years later, I went back there with a friend. Our trip took place at the edge of winter. There was snow on the ground and it was quite cold. However, the pool was delicious. Clouds of steam rose off the water into the cold air. In the water, you could laugh at the cold and luxuriate in that wonderful hot pool. What a fine spot!
We did do one thing that I would not do again, but at the time it seemed like a wonderful idea. We bought a Malamute puppy. He was 1/4 wolf, which meant when he was full-grown, he weighed 110+ pounds. He was a sweet, loving animal, but he was a handful.
We had to keep him tied in the yard of our little house while we were gone or at night. Whenever the pup was left alone, he would howl. I am not sure how we ever got any sleep, because the unhappy dog would keep us awake. However, we loved him and found him very entertaining. We named him Kimmuk. I don’t remember what the name meant.
When we returned to Colorado Springs, the dog did well. We learned, however, never to lock him in the house alone. He would destroy as many things as he could.
Once, he escaped. We put out an APB but never heard a peep about him. A couple of days later he returned.
I think his wolf blood must have been singing about wilderness, and he headed out of town for a couple of days in the wild woods. At least, he returned. After all, the
food was good. When we returned to Alaska, Kimmuk went to Mike’s folks’ house, and they adopted him.
We thoroughly enjoyed our six weeks in Fairbanks. In the afternoons, we explored all corners of the town. At night, we worked. In the early morning hours, we slept. All too soon we had to leave.
We made a unanimous decision that we wanted to return to Alaska, so Schepp got in touch with his friend again. While we waited to hear from him, we played in Colorado Springs at a friend’s cafe and bar, where we played whenever we came home from a job.
We Return To Alaska And Work In Kodiak
Schepp’s friend got us our next job in Kodiak, where we were to play at a place called the Montmartre Inn, a long building with a bar and restaurant downstairs, and rooms above. We stayed in rooms upstairs over the bar. The owner, Millie Markham, turned out to be a warmhearted lady who made sure we were comfortable.
Our plane fare was included as part of our pay, thank goodness. We had so much to take along — instruments, sound system, our performing outfits, plus our personal belongings.
Mike, being somewhat of a “clothes horse,” decided we needed to dress for success, so we had invested in several coordinated combos to wear on stage. I believe that these outfits were a good thing, because when we donned those clothes, we felt we more effectively played the part of being an entertainer.
We learned that the editor of the Kodiak Daily Mirror loved Coors beer, which was not available for purchase in Alaska at that time. So, Schepp filled his bass drum with Coors to win the heart of this influential man. I believe it worked.
I fell in love with Kodiak as soon as I saw it. The town was fronted by a bay and lay nestled against a mountain. Green hillsides well-populated with wild flowers and forests of stately spruce trees, all wearing capes of moss, met our eyes. I loved the place immediately.
That afternoon, we set up our equipment. The large stage was elevated, and located behind the bar. While we set up, two people sat at the bar and observed. They introduced themselves as Les and Dan. Of course, at the time I didn’t know what important parts they would play in my life.
On my days off, I took to the woods. Kodiak was much smaller then, and behind the bar a wide trail led up to the woods. Now, that area is full of houses, but then it was trees, small ponds, and deer trails. I spent hours exploring in those woods, feeling I’d arrived in the midst of an enchanted fairy tale.
Schepp’s favorite place in the afternoon had to be the bar. In Kodiak at that time, if someone bought you a drink, very often, instead of just one drink, they would
“six-pack” the recipient, and Shepp really loved that tradition.
Early in our stay there, Les asked me if I’d go on a day’s fishing trip with him. Embarrassed, I told him I’d forgotten his name. He told me it was “Sam,” and for two weeks I called him “Sam” until I heard someone else call him “Les.”
I agreed to go, and then stood him up. As Alan and I had recently divorced, I didn’t feel ready for male-female entanglements. Les expressed his disappointment and bided his time.
In those early years, there were far more men than women in Alaska. For women, it was considered a single girl’s trolling paradise. However, the descriptive slogan went, “Ten good men for every woman, but remember, though the odds are good, the goods are odd.”
I certainly got my share of attention. In the six weeks we were there, I received seven proposals of marriage (no, Les was not one of the proposees.) Papa Joe, who ran Tony’s Bar downtown, offered me a job as a topless dancer. I turned down all offers.
One of my suitors took me to dinner one night at the Beachcomber’s. It was a large ship that had been brought to land and turned into a hotel, with bar and restaurant. We had a fine meal. My “date” was drinking martinis. I’d never had one, and tried one and liked it. I ended up drinking too many.
I spent some time hugging the toilet in the lady’s room, until a member of the restaurant staff came in to look for me. My fisherman friend then took me to his boat, as he said the night air would clear my head. It did help, though the poor guy showed some disappointment when I insisted on going back to the Montmartre.
At least I learned to stay away from martinis!
One of our regular visitors to our performances answered to the name of Sandy. She drove a cab and sported a hairdo that came straight out of “Gone With the Wind.”
She would come in once a week and offer us a $20 bill to let her sing a song she wrote. It was called, “He’s Got the Cutest Little Dinghy in Kodiak,” and was not exactly church music.
Later, when I returned to Kodiak to stay, I worked as a bookkeeper at Kodiak Oil Sales. Sandy really liked my boss, Pete, and when she would come in to order fuel, she’d flirt with him outrageously.
One day Pete told me a story about Sandy. He said a friend of his came to town and got a ride in her cab from the airport. On the way to town, he asked her if she knew the location of the local whorehouse. Sandy answered, “Honey, you’re riding in it.”
One of the wonderful things about Kodiak was the variety and abundance of seafood available. In those days, some places offered a seafood feast once a month, and the food was free! Millie gave one such feast while we were there, and we ate as much as we could hold.
Fish was easy to come by in Kodiak, and we enjoyed our share. One particular meal stands out for me. A fisherman invited us to his house for a halibut dinner.
I was a bit concerned for myself, as I didn’t like halibut. I loved every other kind of fish. The reason I didn’t like halibut could be attributed to my mother, who hated all fish. Consequently, she didn’t know how to cook it.
She’d buy a frozen slab of halibut, sealed in a box, and just the right size for the evening meal. Now, you and I know that any uniformly frozen slab of fish like that had to have come from a huge halibut, so already it has lost the tenderness and flavor that a younger halibut would have.
Then, my mother’s cooking method took care of the rest. She’d put it in a baking pan, season it with salt and pepper, and bake it until it was thoroughly dry. By then, it tasted like fish-flavored cardboard. Yuck!
So, this fisherman sat us down, gave us each a glass of wine, and cooked the fish. He covered every surface of his small fillets with mayonnaise; then he rolled the
pieces in dried, crushed bread crumbs. He then baked these at 350 degrees until golden.
I cut off a piece of my filet. Delicately scented steam rose from the cut. I took a bite. The fish was perfectly cooked, but not dry as a bone. The mayonnaise coat kept all the moisture in the fish. It’s a cooking lesson I use to this day. Oh, and by the way, halibut is now my favorite fish.
The friendly, generous people of Kodiak seemed to want to show us a good time, Kodiak style, whenever possible. Once, a man invited all three of us to go for a small plane adventure. While fishing in Shelikof Strait, he’d lost power to his very large boat, and had managed by some miracle to maneuver it onto a huge sandy beach, where it remained high and dry.
The owner awaited parts; then a crew would go to the boat and do repairs. Meanwhile, one man had been left on the boat as a watchman. If the boat got in trouble due to a bad storm, he could at least have radio contact.
Once a week, the owner flew over with food, supplies, and mail. The watchman could not leave the boat. I could imagine how confining that must have been. He had to be alert to the safety of the boat, but he really couldn’t do much but wait. It must have been a lonely, boring, but somewhat stressful job.
Meanwhile, back in Kodiak, Les did not give up the chase. On Sunday nights we had open mic, and anyone could come up to sing. On one particular Sunday, we had a guest who lived on an island off Homer. He came to town when he had his own job playing piano at a night spot. He treated us to some fine music on the stage piano that night
While he was there, Les came up and asked if he could sing a song. We discovered he had a very nice voice. He sang, “Something Stupid,” his back to the audience, staring at me.
What’s a girl to do? I succumbed to his charm, and we began seeing each other nearly every day. I had not intended to fall in love, but there you have it. With Les, I embarked on the most romantic relationship of my life.
We became inseparable. By the time our group left Kodiak, I had decided to finish our remaining contract, quit the group, and return to Kodiak and Les.
Our group worked for the remainder of the summer at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, where the Chamber of Commerce gave a barbecue every night for the tourists. For the show after dinner, we became the entertainment.
Meanwhile, Les and I talked by phone almost every night. When the job was finished, I told my partners good-bye, and returned to Alaska.
Stay tuned, folks, to hear more adventures with Fran and Les and Kodiak Island.