Saturday, May 26, 2012

On Alaska - The First Chapter

An Alaskan Boy, A bush Pilot Dad, In the Last Frontier

Chapter 1
A New Adventure

     We journey to Alaska when I am nine. In meaningful respects I'd never leave it. They say, once an Alaskan, always an Alaskan, and maybe it is so. Maybe it is just a larkish Alaskan saying to mystify the uninitiated.

     Certainly this is so for my Father, being an Alaskan Bush Pilot who dies on the job. He leaves behind a mountain named after him, and that is about as “always an Alaskan” as it gets.

     This story takes us back to when the Alaskan experience began for me. Roll back the shrouds of time to 1959…

     Dad has already crashed a helicopter at Glacier Bay, during the summer. He wants more of Alaska. He wants to move north. The adventuresome move promises to be exciting and dangerous. The danger only makes it more exciting.

     This is about me, Robert L. Gisel, Bob for short, and Charles A Gisel, Jr. I am his third and youngest child. For all of my nine years, my Dad has been working for the Army Air Corps. His life is taking to the air for a living, and teaching others the same, that they may gain the same wanderlust for the mystic reaches of the flight accessible heavens. In the emerging age of gurus he is not that, he is simply a flight instructor.

     That by itself is adventuresome. Rookie pilots can be tractable, make big mistakes, and test one’s patience to the fullest. You have to be a better pilot than the lot and out-guess the most unpredictable before it happens.

     Traveling often to new places is my upbringing. A frequent move to another state is the mandate of Father's job as a Civilian Flight Instructor for the US Army. Last it was to visions of cow punching cowboys in Texas. That vision was a bust: we never saw any cowboys, unless you can count the rodeo cowboys in the stadium. But there have been armadillos and creepy snakes. Snakes in our cotton field, our well, and floating down our swimming river.

     The Water Moccasin, also called Cottonmouth, can swim, which is probably how one comes to be in our water well attached to the house. He must have swum in through the feeder stream. Dad rigs a noose on a broomstick and fishes him out and kills it with our whole family looking on. It is a good thing, its next destination was to come out in our toilet, I imagine. Now that I know to watch for that, that I’ll never get caught with my pants down ever again. Not a good place to get bit.

     The favorite swimming hole is in the San Marcos River. This is where I take swimming lessons and get the card saying I am a certified swimmer. When someone yells, “Snake!” we all climb out and watch the Cottonmouth weave down the surface of the river where we were just frolicking. What if the safety guard person hadn’t seen the slimy critter? I shudder thinking of it.

     Our first residence in Texas is in a farmhouse on the edge of a cotton field. We don’ run the farm, we just rent the house. One day the cotton pickers, whom we have never met, migrant workers, come to the house and the lady wants to borrow our car. Another gal has been bitten by a poisonous snake in the field and needs to be rushed to the hospital. Trust is a quick call in a crisis. Mom hands them the keys to our car.

     Will she live? Will they bring back our car? Both happen. Life is exciting at times, the kind of life lessons you remember forever.

     Relocating to the far off land of Alaska now, this alludes to the kind of different we have been looking for. This is Terra Esonis, whatever that means. It's Russian explorers after furs and gold miners pursuing the elusive gold. The warring Alaskan Indians might raid your camp at any time and the wilderness is full of ferocious animals. Life is more fun with a vivid imagination.

     The ancient map of the world by the Dutch cartographer Carel Allard depicts good definition everywhere in North America except for the indefinite, elongated east to west coastline named only Terra Esonis, where Alaska ought to be. I find out this is Latin for unknown land, seen a lot on antique maps of unexplored frontiers. For most of history, and in many respects still, this has been the only title appropriate for this far north and significantly remote territory where explorers roam.

     We have to look it up in our Encyclopedia Britannica. It is a new set, but not new enough to announce it as no longer a U.S. Territory. Here we find pictures from the mining days and remnants of Russian occupation, everything needed to give creative young minds the vivid impression of heading back to the wild gold rush days.

     How we come to move there, and that we even make it there at all, is a story unto itself, Alaska already showing its lure and its allusiveness. The catalyst is the way Dad’s job is administered by the Army.

     The Army’s rule for its flight instructors (for any Army for that matter) is to transfer them every eighteen months, lest they become too attached to an area and resist the next transfer. For me, a kid still growing up, a new place is exciting and provokes my imagination. But then, I don't really have to shoulder the burden of moving, I'm baggage, and a mini front-end loader.

     We lived in Texas two and a half years. While it seems the eighteen month rule was simply violated, the real reason Dad does not choose to make the next move for the Army, to Alabama, is that we have been there. Before Texas was Kansas and before that was Alabama, Oklahoma and Kansas, all since I was born.

     Truthfully, it wasn't very exciting in rainy Montgomery and no one in the family wanted to go back to live there again. The saying is, if it rains on Monday it will rain all the rest of the week. That is not bad if you like it wet. There is a more pungent reason for shunning Alabama.

     Here is a place you are expected to heed the status quo and avoid non-conformity. Mom was forced to hired a black maid, or be thoroughly outcast in ostracism from the other military wives. That is what you had to do, set up a household and have a black maid. This is seriously messed up.

     The maid was a nice lady with folk values and color has no special significance for me. The slave owner mentality of the southern whites, however, is suffocating.

     What we want is to go forth to the bold and brazen eye-popping excitement and rousing adventure from something very different and new. We want to pioneer a unique experience of individuality, one where people aren’t black or white or red but are individuals deserving of consideration and respect. Status quo doesn’t fit into this kind of life style.

     You get pretty good at flying when you train others.  Dad rates for a number of different aircraft, planes and helicopters, proving he can really dance in the air. The papers from the Army claim he is “an exceptional, one of a kind pilot”. A move back to Alabama, however, isn't in the picture for us and Dad seeks new employment.

     The job he finds with Era Copters out of San Francisco lures him to a contract in Glacier Bay, Alaska. The Japanese Glaciologists are exploring the glaciers for the summer. What could be so interesting about ice is beyond me, but evidently it has something to do with ice worms and climate trends.

     Dad's job is simply to get them around to where they can do their research work, and do this in the extreme and variable conditions. There are special hazards of flying airplanes in Alaska. It is even more so with helicopters, with the extremes of weather and topography, especially in the vicinity of glaciers, of which Glacier Bay is overabunding. The suggestion that it might be dangerous only elicits that calm look of his,
framed by his crew cut, straight at you with a faint, confident smile.

     Father, being an adventuresome spirit, is made for the job. People pay good money for tour boat excursions for a day of viewing the massive glacier front. Now Dad gets paid to spend an entire summer there. This is adventure. Who knows what is going to happen.

     The phenomena that Dad encounters in Glacier Bay is called a white-out. Given loose snow and high winds the flurry results in a complete lack of directional and dimensional orientation. The high velocity of the propeller back wash and a fresh snow causes a sudden snow storm on landing. All you can see below, above, and all around is white.

     With visual orientation gone it seems he is going forward when he is going backwards and the tail rudder touches the ground ice. With that gone the copter spins into the ground and beats itself apart with the rotors.

    When he shows me the picture of the wreck, it is unrecognizable as once a helicopter. “How did you walk away from that?” 

     He says, “I just unstrapped and stepped out.” I'm impressed.

     He doesn't lose his job over this. Apparently you are really only part of the group when you have had a good crash you can tell about. Now he is an official Bush Pilot.

     Dad takes the airlines back to San Francisco and picks up another helicopter and flies it back to Alaska to finish out the contract. He takes my sister Sheryl with him for the ride up the West Coast and they have many long conversions of father and daughter bonding. I’m jealous. Then she flies back to Texas on the airlines.

     In Glacier Bay a method is devised to deal with white-out on landing. The Hiller 12-E cockpit is basically a floorboard with a Plexiglas bubble all around. Behind the bench seat is a vertical firewall separating the cockpit from the engine. It is a magic carpet ride, with a bubble around it.

     Opening the door on the right side, the passenger can stick a stovepipe out towards the ground and pour lamp black down the pipe to leave a black streak to demark the ground. This works. He can land, an important part of flying.

     Another day Dad comes a little too close to the ground and the flurry of wind blows the lamp black back up the pipe. Now he has a black-out – inside the bubble. 

     He gains height and hovers by instruments while his passengers, the glaciologists, clear some vision in the bubble. Not a perfect world, right?

     He has learned there is abundant adventure to be found in Alaska. Maybe we'll be saved from a boring Alabama.

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