Dear Reader, I just attended the social bush event of the Winter Season.
My invitation came personally from Lady A. Darden, one of the hostesses of the elite event. The occasion was, in fact, so elite that I was the only one invited.
Twelve-year-old A. Darden has been on an extended visit at the next floathouse over from mine (my parents' house) and she had the inspired idea of having my mom put on a "Bush Tea Party." This was probably a result of her getting hooked on one of my mom's favorite shows, "Downton Abbey," which they've been binge watching together; that is, when A. isn't watching "Gilligan's Island."
On the menu was pumpkin pie with whipped cream, tiny cheese sandwiches--the crusts fastidiously removed--green olives, chocolate chip cookies delicately removed from the mass packaging bag they came in, banana slices, carrot sticks, and a variety of teas to choose from.
Here are some juicy snippets of conversation from this exclusive social gathering:
"So, where do you stand, Lady Darden, on the subject of keeping the village hospital or moving the patients to a larger city hospital?" my mom asked as she sipped her tea, pinky finger elegantly elevated. Apparently that was where they were at in their binge-watching of Downton Abbey.
"They need to keep the village hospital," A. said, decisively slicing into her pumpkin pie. "It's closer, they need a small hospital in the village, and the doctors know the people."
"It appears that you side with the Dowager," my mom noted.
My dad wandered by on his way out the front door. "And here," I said (as official tea party chronicler), "we have an exile from the Bush Tea Party, a veritable barbarian. We should ask him to join us. Oh. He's giving me a death glare, so perhaps not."
"It's a Tea Party Death Glare," he corrected, and carried on about his barbarous way.
From there we discussed the sad news that Jerry Van Dyke had died. "He turned down a starring role in Gilligan's Island," I said, knowing that Lady Darden would find this Important News. We tried to figure out which role he would have played and finally decided that because he'd been typecast early on as not overly bright, or at least naive, it would have been Gilligan himself.
"Gilligan," Lady Darden explained dryly, "isn't as smart as he thinks he is."
Her other favorite show is "I Love Lucy" and she was excited that the ladies of Downton Abbey were going to be visiting New York City where Lucy lived. "They better be prepared," she said darkly, having no illusions about the kind of manic madness that Lucy managed to inject into every occasion.
My mom and I had to break it to her that the ladies lived in different eras. We tried to figure out the time difference between Lucy and the Downtonians as we finished off the tea. A little math in the proceedings was fitting since this was the time of day when I'd agreed to tutor A. in her math homework. I'd even suggested that we make it a "Math Tea Party." I received a death glare in return. (They're fairly common in the long dark winter days of the Alaskan bush.)
As we were discoursing in this vein, Lady A. Darden managed to sneakily separate the cheese from the sandwiches, leaving the little squares of bread still tooth-picked together and apparently unmolested to the unsuspicious, benign eye.
Apropos of nothing whatsoever, Lady Darden volunteered that if she ever wrote a book it would be titled: The Mystery of Who Stole the Cheese.
Alas, the tea party came to its conclusion, as all good things must. But it's an occasion that will be talked about in local gatherings to brighten the many dark winter days still to come.
When I was a kid "Movie Night" was a big deal. Each kid got a turn at choosing a movie from our small library of VHS tapes one night out of the week when we ran the generator to charge the radios' battery. More often than not, I let one of my brothers, or my sister, take my turn. I was known for giving movie night a pass in favor of cuddling up to a good book, ruining my vision reading by kerosene lamp light.
To this day when the topic of movies that the rest of the family know by heart comes up, I am heard to say, "I never saw it." They just shake their heads. The funny thing is, because my bedroom was right above the game room where the movies were watched, I can quote from these movies I've never seen almost as well as they can. (No one tops my brother Robin who is a master at wittily inserting movie quotes into any conversation.)
So, I've never been a big movie person, but thanks to certain friends determined to wise me up, I've been receiving movies through the mail. I have to admit I'm enjoying them far more than I thought I would and find myself getting a thorough education in the history of cinema from Buster Keaton to Star Trek. And then there are movies I receive that purport to being set in Alaska, or having pivotal scenes in Alaska. More often than not, "Alaska" is anything but Alaskan.
I've decided to put up a new category titled "The Alaskan Movie Review," in which I will review movies with Alaskan settings--of both the faux and the real Alaska. I hope you enjoy them as much as I'll enjoy reviewing them.
My first review is of "The Hell Hounds of Alaska" starring Doug McClure. My dad is a big fan of westerns so I'm familiar with McClure in well-written TV shows like "The Virginian." I'm sorry to report that "Hell Hounds" is not his best outing.
Apparently, like the spaghetti westerns Clint Eastwood starred in, set in Italy, there was another subset of westerns filmed in Germany, in the 1970s, called schnitzel westerns. "Hell Hounds" is a schnitzel.
Before we get to the review, let's start with a true or false quiz to test your AQ (Alaskan Quotient) to see whether you know more about Alaska than the producers of this movie did.
1. Totem poles are often found in Alaska's frozen interior.
2. Totem poles look like Fisher Price toys on a stick.
3. Eagles often attack children in Alaska for no reason.
4. Alaska Natives look exactly like folks in the greater Mediterranean area.
5. You can go from deep snow in an Alaskan winter to leafy streams in only hours.
6. All dogs in Alaska are named Buck.
7. Wearing fur in the middle of summer is uncomfortable.
On to the movie: It has a highly forgettable plot about a gold shipment robbery with typical good guys and bad guys and mob and "Indian" violence and a painfully rehearsed barroom brawl with laughable sound effects (mostly women half-heartedly wailing). On the other hand, it has some weirdly matter-of-fact, surreal moments that made me marvel and/or laugh out loud.
Take for instance an early scene where Doug McClure comes across an injured friend who's built his cabin next to the lamest, most Fisher Price on a stick, lollipop looking totem pole ever produced. Let's not forget this is supposed to be deep in the snow-locked interior of Alaska where totem poles were not indigenous. We're told that this is"sacred ground to the Indians," which is apparently what the weird, Dutch-milkmaid totem pole is marking.
Later on, Doug McClure finds the Alaskan Natives, who are dressed and are acting exactly like the so-called Plains Indians in most westerns filmed during this time (and are very obviously European, much like in American westerns), torturing his friend whom they've tied to the lollipop--I mean, totem pole. In order to free his friend, Doug McClure challenges the leader of the tribe to the time-honored, Hollywoodesque knife fight--this time in the snow.
This is the most amazingly surreal scene in the entire movie. As I watched it I imagined what it was like to be a member of that German film crew trying to keep warm, watching some actors pretend to be in Alaska, with fake "indians," below a fake totem pole, with the beautiful Alps in the distance.
Throughout the movie the scenes, supposedly only hours apart, go from deepest snow and ice to canoe rides or horseback rides into leafy green woods, and to some desert dry areas, which is an obvious impossibility even during Alaska's warmest winters. Some of the actors, to maintain the illusion that they're in snowbound Alaska rather than in the middle of a German summer, retain a fur-trimmed vest, or hat, or gloves while leaving their shirts unbuttoned. In Doug McClure's case, he tenaciously hangs onto his fur-trimmed moccasins right to the bitter end no matter how hot and sweaty his feet must have gotten in the summer heat.
There is the usual pretty young innocent maiden, actress Angelica Ott, but she doesn't bother with the pretense of being in the frozen north, preferring to run around amongst her fur-bearing fellow actors in a short-sleeved, pink and black gingham dress. She chucks this outfit in favor of pants and a fur-free hide vest when her father the sheriff is killed and she declares her intent, as she straps on a pistol, to avenge him. That's as far as her vengeance goes, but it's another surreal moment how everyone in town just accepts this change of attire as perfectly reasonable in a gently bred girl of the time.
In addition tall this, there is some bizarrely off-hand racism. To modern ears the racist, inane dialogue is bad enough, but when you add in the fact that these actors are speaking German and the racism is dubbed in? That puts it over the top into awe-inspiringly awful.
Doug McClure, acting with people he apparently can't understand, who are speaking German, gives a bemused, hurried performance. He speaks superfast, as if that will get him through the scenes faster, and perhaps even get the movie over more quickly. While he "phones it in" acting-wise, I have to say that it looks like he took the role of mountain man seriously enough to not have shaved or washed during the entire production. Or maybe he was just depressed? It's hard to say.
But what is certain is that there were no "hell hounds" (whatever those are, and whatever they have to do with Alaska), as advertised. The only canines are some cheerful sled dogs and a pet who makes the ultimate sacrifice and is, of course, named Buck. Because all dogs in Alaskan literature are named Buck. (Just for the record, I have actually never met a dog in Alaska named Buck.) However, there are some bizarrely brutal eagles who attack a boy for no obvious reason, except that apparently this is a thing in "Alaska."
The cover of the dvd promises "savage action in the Far North" but I would say it was more accurate to call it "surreal action in the Faux North." Watch it if you must, but don't say I didn't warn you.
How did you do on the quiz? (Answers: 1-6/F; 7/T) For bonus points, name the Alaska movie on the TV screen in the first photo.
My dad just came back from a day waiting around at the dock for the mail plane to come in, and said he spent the time chatting with pretty much every person in the village.
The dock has always been the gathering place for the locals as far back as I can remember. People go there to wait for planes, school kids to wait for their skiff ride home (chopping up kelp and throwing it at each other in the interim), hang out, exchange tall fishing tales, gossip, tender sympathy.... It's seen everything from wedding parties, to graduation parties, to end of the fishing season parties. If there's a party going, the spot to hold it is at the dock. More than one person has been thrown off the dock, or bumped into the bay while music was pounding and spirits, of more than one variety, were high and flowing.
When we first arrived in Myers Chuck, as it was spelled then, there was a sturdy, central dock made of wood that everyone called "the state dock" since it was built with state funds. Along the wide, warped-plank causeway that led away from land and to the ramp down to the float system, local boys had laboriously carved current events and opinions into the wooden rail. Most of it involved the village's prettiest teenage girls and the local boys' territorial stake to one or the other of them, their admiration for both, and their unfriendly advice to and libel against competitors for the girls' affections.
I loved the dock as a child. It was the most alive, happening place in the world. I could go down the dock, the fishing boats rafted alongside each other two or three deep, and get treats as I went from one barbecue and dock party to the next. Who could say no to a pig-tailed blonde girl in a life vest bouncing on a pogo stick?
The men would gather in groups talking fishing, cards, and politics while someone's rock music blared in the background. The women were busy at barbecues, coming and going from their cramped galley kitchens, chatting about "Chuck Doings," the boats swaying and squeaking against the bumper buoys. The scent of saltwater and low tide mixed with beer, cooking chicken, burgers, and franks.
Some of my school friends lived down at the dock on boats. Two sisters had their own boat that was towed behind their parents' fishing boat wherever they traveled. I loved going aboard and seeing their tidy, cozy floating bedroom.
The dock was moored in place by a series of tall, barnacle-encrusted pilings that sea gulls stood atop, flat-footed, making raucous, melodramatic remarks and looking for handouts.
Could there be a better place to go pogo-sticking?
My cousin Mark has his own dock story:
August 16, 1977
As the only summer residents of the Back Chuck, along with our mom, during our first summer in remote Myers Chuck, my brother Alex and I often ate a quick breakfast and headed for the Front Chuck for some human interaction.
Myers Chuck was tiny, but its population jumped in the summer as boat captains sought refuge or came in to offload their fish at the tiny fish-buying/fuel station attached to the post office and general store. The store had the only land-line telephone in Myers Chuck, allowing us to collect call our father in Atlanta to say hello and check in on the world.
This particular day when I called my dad he told me that Greenie, my pet paraketet, had met his maker. I was devastated. Later, I'd find out the truth about Greenie's demise (an uncle's cat), but for now I just knew I was sad that I'd lost my close companion.
I went to the state dock to have a good cry and found that a grizzled old captain was having a cry of his own. He couldn't possibly have heard about Greenie, but at 9, I asked with all the innocence in the world if that was why he was crying.
He replied, "No, son. Elvis Presley has died."
I knew of Elvis from one of my dad's three 8-track tapes. Dad wasn't a big music guy, but we had The Beach Boys, Elvis, and The Outlaws. Not bad for a non-music guy!
Me crying for Greenie, and the old captain crying for the loss of Elvis, along with the rest of the world, is a day I'll always remember. Only in 1977 remote Myers Chuck could a 65-year-old weathered fishing captain console a city boy out of place about a rock 'n' roll star and a little green parakeet.