It's funny now, but as a kid I didn't think anything of it that my dad's best friend, when he was logging on SE Alaska's vast Prince of Wales Island in the Seventies and Eighties, was called Pitch. All of my dad's stories, when he crossed the strait to be with us out in the wilderness on the weekends, featured things Pitch had said and done that week. Pitch was a giant in my mind.
He was the shovel operator to my dad's scaler/bucker and we kids heard with awe the stories of Pitch picking up tiny coins with his giant grappling tongs. My dad would shake his head in wonder, not only at how smoothly and fluidly Pitch operated the shovel, but also at how it was even possible that he could see the coin to be able to pick it up from his seat back there in the cab.
Pitch operated a "Triple 6," the 666 Koehring on an 866 undercarriage. Because of the three sixes, whenever anything went wrong, as it inevitably would at some point, Pitch and my dad would assert "Satan has it in for us today!" The shovel, a modified excavator, weighed 70 tons and could easily pick up, with Pitch at the controls, an 8 foot in diameter, 40 foot long spruce log.
My dad had such trust in Pitch's precision and situational awareness that he'd buck the logs off with his chainsaw while they were in the clutches of the shovel's grapples. This was impressive because he'd had logs dropped on him by another shovel operator. (By chance he'd fallen into a hole in the ground just before the load dropped on him so he wasn't hurt.) There was no one who could match Pitch's skill--he manipulated the huge machine with its load of heavy logs with complete ease and control. This particular model was considered "slow," but as my dad said, "It was never 'slow' with Pitch at the controls."
Pitch and my dad worked together at Winter Harbor on Prince of Wales and though their crew was small, only five men, they managed to out-log the other much larger crew by a lot. My dad gives the credit to Pitch. He said that once the logs were sorted Pitch had the trucks lined up and could fill and dispatch them so quickly that no other team on the island could keep up. If there was an Olympics for shovel operators, Pitch would have taken Gold home every time.
When I saw Pitch as a kid, I was impressed by how he and my dad complemented each other--they were a lot alike in a lot of ways, but different enough that they could get a kick out of the other guy's perspective. They'd shared a lot of extraordinary life experiences, both being Vietnam vets who became loggers in remote Alaska and who built their own homes themselves. They worked together in Thorne Bay, on Prince of Wales Island, when it was the largest logging camp in the world.
One of my favorite memories of Pitch was when my mom, my sister and me, and two other kids from our bush school, crossed the strait to attend the prom in Thorne Bay. Pitch and his first wife Dale and their three daughters Cheri Dee, Kimery, and Kristi, were kind enough to open their home to us. Before he knew it, this rough and ready logger found his kitchen turned into a beauty salon.
I remember perching carefully on a chair in the living room, trying not to disturb my finery and hairdo, while Pitch entertained us with deliberately hair-raising logging tales. There was a twinkle in his eyes and a rich appreciation for the incongruity of the teens decked out in full prom regalia, the hairspray hanging heavily in the air, politely listening to his stories while my mom finished beautifying the other girls in the next room.
He was good at telling stories. Boom man Tim Lindseth recalls: "Every machine in the sort yard and on the pond had a CB radio and often there would be kind of a topic for the day as chatter, besides the important work stuff. So work stuff could be happening and a story or some ad lib comment going on all through the day.... Pitch made the comment (on the CB) that the Gov. was keeping tabs on who was sitting on a pile of money [through the strips inside $50.00 and $100.00 bills]. To that, every one yakked about this, off and on for an hour and the general consensus was that it must be some sort of tracking device! Pitch chimed in, if you bit the edge off the bill you can pull that strip right out. Now came all of our comments one by one what happens to the strip when the government finds out? Pitch says, he puts it in the cat's food...let 'em track that."
Pitch had a soft spot for cats and kittens. My dad tells the story of how Pitch invented a game that his cat's kittens adored, a little something he called "Cat Darts." He marked out a huge bull's eye on the living room curtains and would toss one of the kittens at the bull's eye. They would stick with their tiny claws to the fabric for a moment or so, then drop down and scamper back, crawling up his leg to have another turn, in the way kids the world over say: "Do it again, Daddy, do it again." He'd tire before the kittens did.
Chris Lewis, who worked as scaler/bucker with Pitch after my dad, told me this funny story about Pitch's soft heart for baby animals: "In the spring every year the area does would bring their fawns into the sort yard and hide them in and around the log decks, etc. Pitch always made sure that at least one skid had logs laid out so the does could hide the fawns against where the skid and the logs intersected and every morning while his shovel was warming up he would check to see if any fawns were hiding along his skids. Well, one morning as I was gassing up and getting my saw ready I noticed Pitch about halfway down a skid looking down at the ground...obviously looking at a fawn, when all of a sudden the little fawn got up and went right between Pitch's legs and tried to start nursing!! Well you can imagine the look on Pitch's face!! I'll never forget it. Of course Pitch just stood there trying to convince the little thing he wasn't its mama. Big tuff logger Pitch. Yeah, I believe he had a very kind heart."
He did have a kind heart. And he liked to share tips that made a person's life or chores easier. My dad was splitting firewood recently and he said, "Pitch taught me to do this better." He said he was chopping wood in the sort yard for the burn barrel one day, driving the ax into the center of a round the way he learned as a kid, when Pitch, who was watching him from the cab of the shovel, said, "There's an easier way to do that." He suggested my dad chop from the outside of the round inward. Sure enough, the tough rounds split far more easily that way and my dad uses the technique to this day.
Wherever Pitch went he was always willing to give of his time and his experience, and many people over many years have reason to be grateful.
After a long illness, lovingly tended by his wife Kathryn, Gerald Pitcher died on April 4, 2018. Pitch was a big guy in the ways that mattered: a man with a big heart, and with an enormous personality, and no one who ever met him will forget him.
It's hard to tell, as you start watching this old B&W film, whether it's really so poorly preserved or if it's just the amount of cigarette smoke the actors are puffing into the air that makes the images so indistinct.
The female star of the show, Thelma Todd, in real life died under mysterious circumstances when she was at the height of her acting career and much was made of it at the time and even today--entire books and documentaries have been made on whether or not her death was accidental or deliberate. But, going by this movie, the amount of carcinogenic smoke she was inhaling on film sets, odds are good she might have died early in any case. (Ironically, her death was due to carbon monoxide poisoning from inhaling the fumes of a running car in an enclosed space.)
Despite Todd's fame and the fact that she acted in 120 pictures between 1926 and her death in 1935, KLONDIKE is in terrible condition. The sound is particularly bad, making the dialogue hard to hear. On the other hand, some of the best scenes of the movie have no dialogue at all.
During the climactic moral scene, when the main character has a do-over moment, doing the same dangerous surgery on a man that he'd done on another patient who died under his knife--a man that's engaged to the woman he loves--there's almost no talking at all, just the clock ticking.
These are actors who came out of the silent era so it's probably not surprising that they can maintain the suspense for literally minutes of no dialogue and almost no action simply by their expressions alone. Thelma Todd, in particular, is wonderful thanks to how strikingly large and expressive her eyes are.
But let''s start at the beginning--which is actually quite slow, focusing for far too long on the doctor-hero's scandal of the patient dying under his knife, long before he heads for Alaska. There is a lot of scurrilous gossip about his relationship with the patient's wife, though when he's tried he's found innocent of all wrongdoing. Still, we're shown him losing many, if not all, of his patients.
Here enters a female journalist who is told by her boss that if she doesn't get an inside exclusive on the doctor she'll lose her job. She goes undercover as a patient. I think the movie should have started with the two of them meeting, because they have excellent, platonic chemistry. I would have loved to have seen much more of the journalist (she returns briefly at the end) and not just because of her connection to my family.
The actress playing the journalist is Priscilla Dean, a popular silent screen star who became famous as the female lead in the comedy series of Eddie Lyons and Lee Moran. She achieved bonafide stardom in "The Gray Ghost"(1917) and went on to have a successful career until the dawn of sound. For reasons that escape me--there's nothing wrong with her voice that I can tell to prevent her from making the switch--"talkies" killed her career and KLONDIKE was her last film.
At the height of her popularity, my great grandparents (on my mom's side) were so taken with her that they named one of their daughters Priscilla Dean. Life likes to have its little jokes and the name Priscilla really did not suit my grandmother so she came be known as Pat, or as we kids liked to call her, "Grambo."
So it was fun for me to see my memorable grandmother's namesake. Interestingly, my grandmother also worked at a newspaper, in Chicago, in the 1940s. She was always a strong supporter of my desire to be a writer.
Back to the film.
Our hero visits a former patient, a pilot who was actually a famous airman of the day, Frank Hawks (who had, 12 years before this film, given Amelia Earhart her first plane ride). The upshot of this conversation is the doctor flying to Alaska with the pilot to escape his scandal-bedeviled life.
The adventures begin immediately when, deep over the interior of wintry Alaska, they run into weather problems. They crash and the pilot is killed. (In a case of life imitating art, six years later Frank Hawks was killed in a plane crash--one year after Amelia Earhart disappeared.) Our doctor hero stumbles out of the wreckage into a blinding shredded-soap storm blown by giant fans.
At a nearby plywood lodge painted to look like its made of logs, locals hear about the crash of the infamous doctor and set out on a dogsled rescue mission. They find the two men, one dead and one alive. The quick-thinking doctor, when he wakes up to Thelma Todd's beautiful face looking down at him in one of the lodge's beds, allows her to think he is the pilot and that the disreputable doctor has died.
The film from there on becomes fairly predictable: Thelma Todd's fiance is revealed to have the exact same condition as the man who died under the doctor's knife; the doctor and Thelma fall fathoms deep in love; the doctor is outed; the doctor is guilted into doing the same dangerous surgery on her fiance in order for the man to have a normal life and marry Thelma.
Things get a bit Flash Gordon, though, when the saved fiance turns into a mad scientist tinkering in the basement with devilish plans to kill off the doctor, since it's obvious Thelma is in love with the surgeon. After tying the doctor up, the mad scientist tells him of his diabolical plans: "This is a better way of killing a man than operating on him, Doc." He adds, pleasantly, "You like to experiment on people--now I'm going to experiment on you." All that's missing is the classic insane laughter.
There's quite an exciting and suspenseful, if a bit outlandish, climax and Thelma and the doctor live happily ever after, shaking the Alaskan soap flakes off their boots to head back to civilization.
But how Alaskan is the movie, you ask? Let's do the math.
1. The lodge is operating full scale deep in winter. Fail.
2. The lodge is operating full scale deep in winter, with huge, spacious ceilings and wide open rooms. Fail.
3. The lodge is operating full scale deep in winter, with huge, spacious ceilings and wide open rooms which they're heating with small armloads of small sticks of wood in a small stove. Fail.
4. The lodge is operating full scale deep in winter, with huge, spacious ceilings and wide open rooms which they're heating with small armloads of small sticks of wood in a small stove as the heroine drifts about the place in thin, short dresses and skimpy negliges. Fail.
5. The lodge has a basement full of crazy gizmos complete with a mad scientist who doesn't balk at "experimenting" on and even killing the guests of said lodge, even a guest who just restored him to health and mobility, in order to get the girl. PASS!!!
You might think that failing four out of five points would make the movie utterly un-Alaskan, but you'd be wrong. The final point makes up for all the rest and completely sells the Alaskan-ness of this film.
Most long time Alaskans know about, even if it seems like the rest of the world never heard of them, the WWII battles fought between U.S. and Japanese forces in the Aleutian Islands. And some might even know about the Japanese submarine I-26 that patrolled from British Columbia to the California coast, sinking at least two ships and shelling a lighthouse and radio-direction-finding installation at Estevan Point, B.C.
But even those who pride themselves the most on knowing their WWII history in the Pacific Northwest are often surprised to find that there was enemy action and a small battle fought in southern SE Alaska off the west coast of Prince of Wales Island in July of 1942.
At this time an airfield had been established on Annette Island, 25 miles south of Ketchikan, to defend Canadian and U.S. interests along the coast. The Royal Canadian Air Force's No. 115 (Fighter) Squadron was established on the island on May 5, 1942 becoming "the first Canadian force ever based in U.S. territory to directly assist in American defense" according to M.V. Bezeau in the book "Alaska at War."
Alaskans and everyone else living along the Northwest Coast were jumpy at the thought of Japanese subs prowling about seeking a target, particularly after the I-26 sank the 386-ton freighter Coast Trader as it left the Strait of Juan de Fuca on June 7, 1942. The U.S. Government, fearing a panic, put out the word that the ship was sunk by "an internal explosion."
This official double-talk didn't calm everyone's fears. In the month following the sinking there were numerous reports of submarine sightings in southern SE Alaska, which, when investigated, turned out to be logs or whales.
Then, on July 6, a Coast Guard vessel patrolling near a small inlet on Noyes Island on the West Coast of Prince of Wales Island, heard from a group of salmon trollers in the area that they'd seen a sub's periscope in open waters half a mile off Cape Addington.
The Coast Guard passed on the information to the RCAF 115 Squadron on Annette Island. At the same time, two patrol ships armed with depth charges, the CG Cutter McLane and the Navy-requisitioned halibut schooner Foremost were dispatched. The next morning RCAF Bolingbroke bombers conducted searches of the area, but found nothing.
Both the U.S. and Canadian forces took the sighting seriously, however, and despite bad weather and limited visibility the RCAF sent out another Bolingbroke later in the day. Once over the search area, the crew reported a line of churning water and what they described as white puffs of smoke.
They dived on the target and at 500 feet they were able to see, running just beneath the surface, the dark, classic cigar shape of a submarine. The bomber released a 250-pound anti-sub bomb.
The explosion from the hit sent a 60-foot plume of water into the air. As the bomber circled above, the crew noted that while no debris surfaced an oil slick two to four hundred feet in diamter spread over the area. After circling for two hours searching for debris or survivors, the plane was forced to return to Annette Island.
Meanwhile, the two patrol vessels the McLane and the Foremost arrived on the scene to continue the search. Although there are deep waters off Cape Addington, the chart showed a shallow area where it was thought just possible that a damaged sub could come to rest and even effect repairs if the hit hadn't been too catastrophic. In the absence of any wreckage, the ships were ordered to maintain their position in the area and wait for the sub to possibly re-emerge.
Day two into the search, the McLane picked up underwater engine noises and dropped a depth charge over the position, but it was a dud and failed to explode. The rest of the day was devoted to a typical cat-and-mouse pursuit as the McLane continued to pick up the noises of a zig-zagging sub and dropped more depth charges, not duds this time.
The sub, tiring of being harassed, launched a torpedo which the crew of the McLane saw clearly as it cleaved the water toward them. As author Pat Roppel reports: "The commanding officer [of the cutter] was standing on the bow and saw the torpedo coming, recognizing the yellow head and green body and hearing it hiss. It left a feather of 125 feet as it came toward the cutter. The vessel moved astern, and the excited crewmembers watched the warhead speed by within two feet of the cutter's bow."
Immediately, the cutter and the Foremost steamed toward where the torpedo had been launched from.
The Foremost, unable to get far enough away from the range of the depth charges it dropped, was already damaged by its own blasts when, in deep water, it hit what seemed like a sandbar. As it turned out, the old schooner had struck the submarine so hard that it knocked her false keel eight inches off center. The wounded ship hurried away, dropping a smoke bomb to mark the spot. The McLane moved in and dropped two more depth charges, which produced an oil slick and shortly after that, the appearance of the sub's periscope.
The cutter, knowing its light armor was no match for the sub's deck guns if it should be allowed to surface and use them, closed in on the sub once more and dropped yet more depth charges. This time not only did more oil reach the surface, but so did chunks of what appeared to be the sub's insulation.
The ships, accompanied by flyovers by the Navy, scouted the area but found no further trace of the submarine. On October 30, 1943 the U.S. Navy Department officially announced that an enemy submarine had been sunk off Cape Addington in a combined action between the RCAF Bolingbroke bomber crew, the Coast Guard crew on the McLane, and the Navy crew aboard the YP-251 Foremost.
It's not known for certain which submarine was sunk*, or why it was in the area, though a post-war report prepared by the US and British Navies noted that morale had become low in the Imperial Japanese Navy when so few important U.S. coastal targets were taken out by subs: "It was frankly impossible to believe that submarines could spend weeks on the US west coast 'without contacts'."
It's possible the sub was hoping to achieve something worth reporting. Instead, very far from home and loved ones, in a cramped, claustrophobic, and smelly vessel of war, it's believed that the crew pointlessly met their deaths on the bottom of the ocean just off Prince of Wales Island, Alaska.
*The submarine was officially cited, after the war, as the RO-32. However, the RO-32 appeared to be still in action throughout the rest of the war. Additionally, Japanese official records do not confirm that they lost any submarine in that area. It's entirely possible that the RO-32 was damaged and ejected oil and the insulation to fool its pursuers into thinking it had been destroyed and then, after the pursuit was called off, limped away to safety.