The Unofficial Tour of Fairbanks and the Missing Gas Receipts
In a recent conversation with my great mate Kurt, I made one of the most succinct statements I’ve ever made during one of my non-stop streams of thought that leak from my twisted mind in an age. I would say years but that would just be more unnecessary words. “To make a short story long.”
For those who have had to stop me going back to the time I was three years of age delivering newspapers before dawn in the snow when answering a question about where I bought my sneakers, you will fully understand the pain Kurt was about to endure. But looking at the headline of this current rant and figuring out how to explain it all before dark was a bit daunting. It was nearly noon after all…
So, dear reader, if you can, cast your mind back to 1986. If you weren’t born yet or were in kindergarten or similar, ignore that bit. At the time, I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska, the town of Ester to be more precise. Some of you might know Ester because of the world famous Malamute Saloon (or at least Kurt said it was famous) and as he was the cook at the restaurant who made sure that my traveling partner Karen and I always had breakfast, so for the sake of this story I’ll believe him.
We were pretty skint (English for broke).
Having ridden there from Florida on a ragged 1973 Honda 550, it was time to get jobs and make some money as we were pretty skint (English for broke). Seasonal work in Alaska was abundant and Karen and I were soon working an array of jobs seven days a week. Karen was a barmaid/saloon girl at night at the Malamute (hence our free place to stay and Kurt’s breakfasts) and her other job was in town waitressing. I managed to get a job in an English pub called “Clinkerdagger, Bickerstaff, and Pett’s.” You know I’m not creative enough to make that up, so you’ll have to believe it. For some reason the owners thought that an English themed restaurant would be a hit in the wilds of Alaska, and dressed in navy blue knickerbockers, white knee length socks, a poet’s puffy-sleeved orange shirt and waistcoat, who am I to disagree? Sorry, Annie Lennox.
Yes, The Malemute and the Clinkerdagger were real places.
Which brings me to the Hells Angels (well, they might just have been rough looking Harley riders with patches, but I figured Kurt would think I was much cooler than I obviously am if they were Hells Angels). As there were no jobs available at night on the wait staff, I got a job driving the “Clinks” van around the local hotels, bringing all the “blue hairs” in for dinner and taking them home afterwards. Having grown up in England without a car, I’d missed a lot of the formative education young American men receive doing donuts, hand brake turns, drifting and wheel spinning on four wheels. As luck would have it, the 12-seater van had a V-8 engine and Fairbanks had lots of big empty parking lots with soft, loose gravely surfaces… an ideal combination to perfect my skills. It was as if the job were tailor made for someone who had grown up underprivileged in this fashion. The scoop was to go to the local hotels and jam 16 people in the van. I had a breadbasket primed with cash up front for tips so the more the merrier- simple arithmetic really. Then I’d hammer them down the Steese Highway to the pub. It was always enjoyable watching the sea of blue hair waving from side-to-side in the mirror as the van slewed through the tighter corners, and on arrival I’d drop them at the front door for dinner. I’m sure none of them had enjoyed that sort of nervous giggling for decades as they sort-of thanked me and went off to eat.
Now, with some time won, thanks to a little deft speed work on the way in to the restaurant, I was free to practice my driving skills in my favorite car parks before the next pick up. There was one small “fly in the ointment” at this point and it was the manager, Tim. For some reason, he was getting a little hot under the collar about the fuel bills. Odd, I thought, but in the interest of his health I came up with a new scheme (I’m getting to the Hells Angels, believe me). The aforementioned van had two petrol tanks (American V8s clearly use a lot of the stuff), so I would fill the one tank, then the other; take two separate receipts and only hand one in. Tim’s health immediately improved, along with my burnout abilities, and all of the senior citizens sitting on each other’s knees during the manic drive to Clinks were tipping away merrily.
Ok, here’s the bit about the “Hells Angels”
And so on one dark and stormy night (actually it was during the day, but it was always a little overcast in Alaska it seems in my memory), up at the petrol station where I was nimbling around in my knickerbockers, the Hells Angels pulled in. Road warriors, they were covered in good Alaskan mud and mosquito parts. Caught between them and the van after signing for the petrol, it was an uncomfortable walk back to safety. I’ve never been terribly manly in the first place, but in a bright orange puffy shirt and blue knickerbockers nicely accented by the white socks?
Waiting for the war cry from a group of real men fueled by testosterone and gasoline, I imagined my slow miserable end as they dragged me behind some large Harley, like you used to see happen to cowboys in the Westerns. Although back then they had horses. I know that because we used to get Westerns on the telly in England on Sunday afternoons. Anyway, as luck would have it, they were more intent of gassing up, picking bugs out of their teeth and moving on than dragging weirdly dressed Englishmen through the mud. I popped into the van thinking it was probably best not to tell them I rode a Honda.
My mate Denny Wells drew this illustration of me and my clientele at the “Clinks”.
So by now Kurt was really wishing he’d been able to fidget long enough at the doctor’s recently to be diagnosed with adult ADD so he could have loaded up on some Adderall for the remainder of this story, but being the son of a son of a Wisconsin cheese maker, he’s very calm. Moving on, I told him about the unofficial tour of Fairbanks…
You see, driving a tad fast, popping in the extra crinkly- or seven- to pad the breadbasket, life was good. It can always be a little better though, and the piece de resistance of the experience for our happily liquored up polyester army was my impromptu tour of Fairbanks they all unequivocally went for, whether they wanted to or not. Taking them through the seedy side of town, I showed them the hookers, the dealers and the bars where you’d be most likely to get shot. I stopped the van where they moved one of the famous churches across the river in 1929 when it froze over. I have no idea if it really was 1929, but Google hadn’t been invented (or cell phones for that matter, come to think about it) so no one questioned the knowledgeable van driver. I remember one guy getting a little cocky one night after one of my speeches saying, “How long have you been in Alaska, son?” With a lot of emphasis on the word “son” to press home his maturity. Well, I stretched the three weeks into a couple of months and pressed on, barely missing a beat as I explained some other anomaly of the town of Fairbanks they’d never get on a regular tour.
“Two Miss Alaskas?”
The extra attention paid huge dividends on the tips, and the rather stuffy (even if she was quite attractive) assistant manager Sonya was constantly amazed how I was out-earning her by at least three dollars to one on the tips, clearly with no obvious talents on display. But I digress.
By now a third cup of caffeine had lifted Kurt from a state of needing life support to trying to get a word in for a question. In a rare moment of silence on my part, he managed to jam in, “Two Miss Alaskas?” his voice a little squeaky and crackly from having not used his vocal chords for such a long period of time by now. Clearly, he was thinking that I might have exaggerated that little tidbit the way I turned the dirty bikers into Hells Angels. Well, dear reader, no porky pies here. That’s Cockney rhyming slang for lies in English, by the way…
Yes, I really did shuttle Miss America 1986 (and the two Miss Alaskas) around Fairbanks. No, I didn’t get a copy of said photo. Nor did I get lucky with any of them. Photo by Insider.
So one day the word went out at Clinks that Miss America was coming to visit and being accompanied by Miss Alaska. In a full time committed relationship (with Karen, not Kurt, silly people) meant Miss America wouldn’t be able to pluck me away from my highly prestigious van driving job and help bump start the Honda 550 when the battery went flat. She masked her pain well for a photo shoot as I lined up next to one of my fellow waiters, Farron. Having recently been crowned Miss Gay Alaska, it was a special moment for Farron and, much to Kurt’s chagrin, I was able to point out that there were actually two Miss Alaskas in the same story. Simple really!
By early September winter was hurling early warning snow at us like it meant it, so we reluctantly sold the trusty Honda 550, packed our bags, said goodbye to Kurt, his wife Karen (different Karen), and all the wonderful people we’d spent our summer with in Alaska and started hitching rides south. That involved some interesting near misses with bears, the unofficial world record for the longest ride hitchhiked and a crazy accident with a cow in Montana, as we set our sights on our next adventure. Within just a few weeks we’d be in China, but that’s another story…
*1973 Honda CB550 Four cover photo by John Goetzinger, via Wikipedia. I lost any photos I might have had of that bike years ago.