Neon lights proclaimed it “The Green Lantern.” Any construction boomer in Anchorage knew it more accurately as “The Green Latrine.” In 1949 I hooked my 19-year-old thumbs through my belt and shouldered my way through its swinging doors.
What an uproar. Smoke was volcano grade and the racket was prodigious. An antler-framed mirror behind the bar reflected what could have been a scene from Dodge City. The bottle blond that passed for a singer set down her beer bottle and reached for the mike. Painted sweeties and swinging dandies took to the dance floor. Shouts from the blackjack game drowned out the lot. Everybody was juiced up. I went back out to the blazing Sodom of Fourth Avenue.
A surging throng of laborers, machine operators, truck drivers, railroaders, miners, trappers, fishermen, con men, and jailbirds jostled each other along. They ate blue-plate dinners at the bus station lunch counter. Some had bedrolls beside their seats. A few had left their watches in some hockshop. They all needed haircuts. Each of them was a citizen of the frontier I had come to join.
I had quit a pettifogging business college to head north for a frontier, but not for the madhouse of Anchorage. I had to push on still farther. In the railroad timekeeping office where I worked it was possible to spot unfilled jobs. The next morning, I tracked down a survey position coming vacant. Surveyors! They were the lords of the line. The chief engineer would need a replacement right now.
I applied for the job. He checked my work record and cleared it with my current supervisor. “OK,” he said. “When can you be ready to head out for Hurricane Station?” “In two hours.” “Whoa, OK. But the Flyer doesn’t leave until tomorrow.”
The Flyer reached Hurricane section house. On a siding there stood the two weathered outfit cars of Survey Team Two. Those lone cars set the mood. My new outfit staked out wider curves, plotted more gentle grades, and calculated the ballast necessary to reinforce the roadbed. Hurricane section house with its half dozen maintenance men plus our team lived alone on our stretch of track. Eight miles south stood another such section and seven miles north was another. There were few other human beings to watch the morning sun illuminate Mt. McKinley 40 miles away.
My new crewmates were professionals first, but they were a cheery bunch too. They had jumpstarted a batch of homemade beer by warming the sealed bottles with kerosene lamps. Result: Bottles exploded all night. Before summer’s end I was wishing to be like them. The cost of admission to such an elite circle was a degree from a major university.
When snow began falling the crews were called in. Under aurora borealis, I swore to return to a university and do or die. Four years later I earned my BA degree.