Marlie and Glenn and I tickled and teased in the back seat as Dad drove our ’57 Chevy south along Turnagain Arm. We passed frozen waterfalls on the left, and the sharp drop to the edge of the water on the right, with almost no shoulders and not near enough guardrails. We drove the hundred-mile stretch from Anchorage to Moose Pass thirty or forty weekends a year, but this time we stayed for ten days, clear through Christmas and into the new year, 1963.
An hour from Anchorage, we veered away from the water. The road climbed through the white country, as we called Turnagain Pass, and past the mountains where Dad hunted sheep in the fall. Snowbanks rose higher than the car windows through that alpine territory. As we youngsters started bouncing on the back seat, Mom said, “Come on, kids, let’s sing a song.”
“The Sloop John B!” I called out.
“Okay, you other kids can choose next.” She burst into song, quieting our rambunctious behavior without us even knowing it. By the time we reached Moose Pass, we’d gone through some Jim Reeves, folk songs, and a few popular numbers that we knew Mom’s brothers would sing when we saw them for Christmas, playing their guitars at Aunt Phyllis’s house.
We knew everybody who lived in every house in Moose Pass, about a hundred people in the townsite, and a few more in isolated cabins along the highway to the north and south. Our family had lived there until 1957.
My family celebrated Christmas of 1962 as we usually did, gathered at Aunt Phyllis’s house in Moose Pass. Most of my twenty cousins were in town for the holiday. We kids were sent upstairs or shushed long enough for the family’s annual splurge on a phone call to their youngest sister, Aunt Betty. She’d married and moved to Virginia a few years earlier.
One afternoon Mom and Aunt Phyllis began to reminisce.
“Wouldn’t it be great to just show up at Betty’s door one day?” Mom imagined Betty’s shock.
“I’d love that!” Phyllis sipped her coffee. “And how about our cousins on Long Island? It would be great to surprise them, ring the doorbell and wait to see the looks on their faces.”
Mom’s parents brought their seven kids from Smithtown, New York, to Moose Pass, Alaska, in 1945, and most of them still lived in Alaska in the 1960s. Back on Long Island, Mom and her six siblings had been surrounded by cousins who became their closest childhood friends. Now the same thing happened with their family in Alaska—all Mom’s siblings had children. During the 1950s alone, seventeen grandchildren were born to Gram and Grampa Sanders.
One of the kids, running through the kitchen, stopped to ask, “Who should we meet?”
“Aunt Betty, and our relatives in New York.”
Virginia and New York, so far from our small world, might as well have been the moon. Born and raised in the land of the midnight sun, the rest of the country hovered in the distance, beyond our reach, or even our imagination. Beyond the hundred miles of highway between Moose Pass and Anchorage. On rare occasions we explored more widely, clam digging or agate hunting along the shores of Cook Inlet, or watching the Mount Marathon race in Seward on the Fourth of July. Moose and mountain goats inhabited our world. We had never seen a herd of cows.
Mom’s eyes sparkled, her mind churning. “It would be a really long trip, but…”
Phyllis liked to dream big. “If we go that far, we might as well see all the people and places we can.”
“Yeah! If we drove to New York and Virginia, we could go a little farther and visit Uncle Sal and Uncle Nick in Florida.” Grandma perked up hearing that. She hadn’t seen her brothers in years.
Soon the list included natural wonders and historic buildings, amusements and amazements of all kinds. We kids chimed in with our own desires: Niagara Falls! The Grand Canyon! Disneyland!
The extravagance might have sunk the plan. After all, Mom and Phyllis grew up poor, sometimes living in a relative’s garage where rats bit their sister Nancy one night. But they had learned to economize, growing gardens and serving Spam roasts studded with cloves when they had no more salmon or moose meat in the freezer. With their kids all in school, both of them worked at paying jobs.
Maybe, just maybe, they could make it happen.
We chattered about the trip all the way home to Anchorage, ignoring Dad’s sidelong glances. A few days later a letter arrived from Phyllis. Dearlings, We now have $8.75. Don’t laugh, that’s pretty good for 1 week. Besides a fund, there’s something else you should be doing, and that is making lists of all the things or places you want to see and do. Every time you come down or I go up I’ll copy the lists in the little black “Drive in ’65” book I have started. Then every once in a while we’ll consolidate the lists and try to map out a route to take so we can see the mostest for the leastest.
I was ten years old when we hatched this plan, and I had been Outside—meaning out of Alaska—only once. My younger sister and brother had never been to the Lower 48 states nor even much beyond Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula.
My Aunt Phyllis’s kids, Jim and Michelle (known as Mikie then, or sometimes just Mike), were more experienced. Though they lived in tiny Moose Pass, their family had driven down the Alcan Highway and back to visit Uncle Bill’s family in Colorado, a journey of 3,400 miles.
Aunt Phyllis and Mom imagined piling their kids into a van, adapted for camping. From the initial goal of visiting Aunt Betty and the New York cousins, the plan grew to cover the length and width of the continent and include places we had only read about in National Geographic or Time magazine.
My aunts and uncles raised their eyebrows and stared, some with admiration and others with disbelief. A few friends encouraged them to go for it, but sidelong glances betrayed their skepticism.
Uncle Bill snickered through a lopsided grin. My dad scoffed, rolled his eyes. “You’d turn around before you reached the Canadian border,” Dad taunted.
Which is to say, they threw fuel on the fire, and the dream of The Drive in ’65 blazed to life.
Deep inside, that other voice, the voice of doubt, whispered sweet nothings in their ears, but Mom and Aunt Phyllis refused to listen.
My mom, Winnie Reed, was twenty-nine years old, married with three children, and gainfully employed. Yet no bank would issue her a credit card in her own name. In most states, she couldn’t serve on a jury nor be prescribed birth control pills. The doors of Princeton, Harvard, Dartmouth, and Columbia were barred to her, and all women, except in the rarest of circumstances. Her employers paid her less than they paid men who did similar work. Still, Mom dreamed of seeing more of the world. So she saved any spare money and added to our list of travel dreams: jazz music in New Orleans, oranges picked right from the trees.
For several months, with every weekend visit to Moose Pass, Mom and Phyllis gathered all of us together for brainstorming. Where did we most want to go? Each of us had wonders in mind: Surfing! The Empire State Building! The cliff dwellings! By early 1964, Phyllis had purchased a van and negotiated with her husband, Bill, to modify it for our needs. We needed places for everyone to sleep and rooftop storage.
What could we, the kids, do to earn spending money for the trip?
I sometimes babysat to earn money, and since we had the Friday before Easter off school. Marlie and I walked a half mile to a babysitting job with our friend Becky, watching five little kids in an apartment on Minnesota Drive while their mother ran errands. We tried to keep the toddlers amused, and played games with the older kids.
Then a table lamp tipped over.
I looked up. Which child knocked that over?
A floor lamp rocked back and forth, with nobody near it. Becky, Marlie, and I exchanged glances with a shocked awareness.
“Sandy, quick! Under the table!” Becky said, as she shoved the baby into my arms. We urged the kids to safety while the floor shifted and rolled beneath our feet. A sewing machine on the table teetered dangerously.
“Save it!” cried the oldest boy. “Mom needs it for her sewing jobs.”
Marlie hefted the fifteen-pound sewing machine. Straining with all her ten-year-old might, she lowered it to the floor. She yanked the chairs away and rushed to join me and the kids beneath the table.
The concrete floor became a carnival ride. The four-plex groaned. Dishes shattered into broken heaps. The kids screamed in terror, shaken by the earth.
Quakes were familiar to us, but unlike the usual temblors that lasted only seconds, this one rumbled more than four minutes. We waited it out, comforting the children as best we could with our own voices shaking.
Finally, the earth stilled. Silence.
We crept out. Lamps lay on the concrete floor, now streaked with cracks. Shards of dishes and food from counters and cabinets littered the kitchen. The children’s few toys were flung around the rooms. The power had failed, and the little remaining afternoon light reflected off the snow outside. As we gazed in shocked silence, the baby wailed, echoed by the shrill wail of sirens outside.
Earthquakes are a fact of life in Alaska, especially along the southern coast. I didn’t think too much about its severity or the damage beyond the apartment where we waited. With no injuries to tend, we cleaned up broken dishes and food, tried to distract the children, and waited anxiously for their mom to return.
As darkness fell nearly an hour later, the children’s mother burst through the door.
“Where are the kids?” she demanded, panicky until she saw them all. She hugged each one just to be sure. “What did you do when the quake started?”
We described our ordeal, with excited comments from the kids, but she stopped us, clearly angry. “You stayed in the house? Why didn’t you take them outside?”
I couldn’t understand that—we had done what we had been taught in earthquake drills at school, and her children were all safe, unharmed. However, none of us wanted an argument. We quickly split the babysitting money with Becky, all of us eager to return home.
Marlie and I donned boots and coats and walked through twilight brightened by snow. Lights should have shone in the stores, with the bright windows of nearby houses lighting our way. Instead, all was eerily dark and silent, broken by an occasional car or distant siren. We pointed out to each other the damage around us—broken windows in our neighborhood grocery store and tilting power poles. Someone walked around one house shining a flashlight on the foundation. And was that a whiff of natural gas in the air?
Our house escaped major damage—the concrete porch tilted away from the front door a couple of inches, and the basement floor had a few cracks. But like everyone else, we had no power, phone, or natural gas.
With their children accounted for, Mom and Dad began trying to contact family members on the Kenai Peninsula. All communication was cut off—highways, the railroad, phones, all disabled. They drove to the Red Cross office and signed up for news of our relatives in Moose Pass, Kenai, and Homer. Then we waited but with plenty to do.
In our chilly kitchen, we fixed sandwiches and thermoses of coffee, which Mom and Dad delivered to the workmen repairing roads and docks in Anchorage. A couple of days after the quake, they let me ride along with them. I gaped at the destruction and began to understand the anxiety and anger of the woman we’d been babysitting for. She had been downtown that day, where streets cracked open, buildings collapsed, and broken glass and rubble surrounded her. She picked her way home through a maze of blocked roads, probably imagining the worst for her family.
Three friends whose home suffered major damage stayed at our house, where we used the hamburger starting to thaw in our freezer to cook big pots of goulash and chili on a Coleman camp stove in the garage. Fortunately, we had a water source in the yard—the snow lay several inches deep, so we melted and boiled it for drinking, cooking, and washing. School closed for ten days; for a few schools, even longer.
Dad worked for a trucking company, and its work halted because of all the damaged roads. The major shipping port at Seward, where road, rail, and sea cargo changed hands, was destroyed by a tsunami generated by the earthquake. Successive thirty- and forty-foot waves spread flaming oil from the port’s storage tanks across the city.
Mom also worked in transportation, in the offices of SeaLand Services near the Port of Anchorage. Port reconstruction roared along around the clock for months, and she returned to work in makeshift offices a couple of weeks after the earthquake, with restored communications and utilities.
Most of the bridges along the Seward Highway collapsed by the quake. The Army initiated Operation Helping Hand, flying hundreds of missions delivering supplies and machinery as well as taking aerial photos of the damage to the inaccessible railroads and highways to document needed repairs. As shipping routes were rearranged and temporary bridges set up, Dad worked long hours with his company over the next few months to keep freight moving.
During the first few days, relief flooded through us each time a family member from Moose Pass, Homer, Kenai, or Seward contacted us. All were safe, but the quake disrupted their lives. Uncle Bill in Moose Pass worked for the Alaska Railroad, which no longer had service through Moose Pass due to earthquake damage. Shortly after the quake, the railroad transferred him to Whittier where the Mason family lived part of the summer of 1964. Whittier’s deep-water port had suffered far less damage than Seward. By fall, Uncle Bill was transferred to Anchorage—and for the first time in several years, we lived near enough to walk to their house.
Though we imagined traveling the country end to end the following summer, a more immediate challenge lay closer at hand: the road out of Moose Pass was nearly impassable. Crews started repairing bridges and, within a few weeks, limited travel resumed. Workers replaced bridges along Turnagain Arm with temporary, low crossings, which could be used only at low tide. Traffic stacked up in long lines behind pilot cars, waiting for limited highway openings. As the tides rose, travelers raced to reach the crossings and avoid being stranded until the tide receded.
Turnagain Arm has the highest tides in the U.S.A. (a fact drilled into us in elementary school geography lessons) and a tidal bore that can—on any day—bring in a fast-moving wave several feet high. Until better bridges could be rebuilt, the low-tide crossings and ongoing road repairs lengthened the trip from Anchorage to Moose Pass, normally two hours, to an ordeal twice that long, timed at the mercy of the tidal schedule.
My parents worked well together when faced with a common goal like their business or the earthquake recovery, and their marriage seemed pretty happy most of the time. But in their moments of friction I wondered how happy they really were. By this age, I could count to nine, and I knew they’d been married only six months when I was born. Mom turned eighteen a month before my birth, and finished high school by correspondence. When they argued, I began to question whether they’d have been happier if I never came along. Those arguments passed, and my questions faded, until the next time.
And what about our plans for the Drive? When we finally visited Aunt Phyllis a couple of weeks after the earthquake, she described their terrifying experience, watching the water in Trail Lake slosh up to the highway twenty feet above the normal level of the lake. Trees swayed wildly, bending nearly to the ground. “Our van bounced all over my driveway. I could see it from the house,” she said. Fortunately, it stayed upright and escaped damage, unlike so many cars we had seen crushed by collapsed buildings or tilted into yawning cracks in the roads.
Only a couple of months earlier, Phyllis had bought that brand-new Chevy Greenbrier van—a model that would later be rated among the worst cars produced that year, part of the Corvair series of vehicles reamed by consumer watchdog Ralph Nader as “Unsafe at any Speed.” It had a rear-end air-cooled engine, and the front bench seat perched above the front wheels. The tan and white van was as plain as sand, but we had ideas for spiffing it up.
Despite his ongoing mockery of our plans, Uncle Bill agreed to customize the van with a roll-up tent canopy over the side double doors, and the slide-out extension out the back doors, where my cousin Jim and I would sleep. The three younger kids, Marlie and Glenn, and my cousin Mikie, would sleep on the bench seats. Mom, Phyllis, and Gram would sleep on folding aluminum lawn loungers under the side canopy—a striped canvas roof with walls of mosquito netting.
In May, Phyllis sent a letter addressed to “Miss Sandra Reed, Sec’y Drive in 65” to let me know that Mikie was summarizing our finances for a treasurer’s report. Phyllis also reported that travel information from around the country filled her mailbox, and we could soon compile it to formulate our plans for the route we would follow. In addition, Phyllis illustrated with a few sketches her ideas for the car-top storage bin and roll-up tent.
With our classes back in session, life slowly adapted to a new normal. Would that new normal allow for the trip we had planned? This was a topic of many discussions among Mom, Dad, Phyllis, and Bill over beer and pinochle as the fall of 1964 approached.
To bolster their case, Mom and Phyllis developed a financial plan. They presented the cost of meals and household expenses for two families at Alaska prices if we stayed home. The alternative: our dads would pay for our gas bills—only thirty cents a gallon—charged to a credit card, but our savings would pay the rest of our expenses while we traveled. Surely Dad and Uncle Bill could see how much money they would save if we traveled for fourteen weeks rather than burden them with the expense of feeding and maintaining us all at home.
Mom and Phyllis applied their usual creativity and determination to the plan, and they prevailed. The Drive was on!
Meanwhile in news of the wider world, Sydney Poitier won an Academy Award for Best Actor in Lilies of the Field—“the first of his race” as the Anchorage Daily Times reported, to be so honored. And race proved big news that year, with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 taking effect in July. The import of that act escaped me, a white twelve-year-old living far from the scene of demonstrations and conflict.
Alaska, vast as it was, had left me small in important ways—small in my perception of other people in the world, those whose color and culture were strange to me. My school had a handful of black students and very few of Hispanic or Native American descent. Just as strange to me were the inhabitants of crowded cities, and anyone who spent life in the sweltering heat and humidity of the South—people who had never seen snow.
I frowned at the grainy television images of protests, riots, and President Lyndon Johnson signing the new law. How would this important new law affect those angry, bleeding protesters? How would it affect me? I was too far removed to know, but The Drive in ’65 was about to shake up my world.