... his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
— Walter Benjamin
Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History
A Storm Out of Paradise
Memories and Meditations on Love, Heartbreak
and the Loss of Innocence on America’s Vanishing Frontier
The story of my long love affair with Alaska and the heartbreak that ended it is easy to retrace. For 23 years I chronicled my every turn in the pages of newspapers, in public, for everyone to see.
I explored those pages again recently while researching a book about those years and the Alaska Newspaper War that occupied me through most of them. Hindsight naturally brought clarity I didn't enjoy at the time and—most importantly—perspective. What first saw light as isolated, individual articles and observations revealed a clear pattern when viewed from the ridge line looking back.
Almost all those writings were composed in haste, written on deadline and left to drift away uncollected, but I see now that they were more than fragments. Each small piece was a tile in a larger mosaic that now comes into view.
My memoir itself doesn’t tell that story plainly. Write Hard, Die Free is mainly the tale of a quest for good journalism against imposing odds and as such looks at Alaska through a particular lens. It deals mostly with with what I called “dispatches from the barrooms and battlefields” of the newspaper war, naturally a more institutional than personal view.
Now I find that I have something more to offer, thanks to the perspective of time and distance. Though I rarely recognized it as these events unfolded I now see a consistent theme woven through the narrative.
It’s a love story.
I was born in love with Alaska, a frontier baby born to an idealistic young couple working to build a new life far away from the Great Depression, from Texas, and from World War II. Their fortunes would ebb and flow over time—often ebbing, it is true—but their fundamental optimism and affection for Alaska never faltered. I drank in their ideals and affection with my mother’s milk, I suppose. I can’t recall a time when I didn’t share them.
Not long after he returned from war in the South Pacific to the dry land cotton fields of north Texas, my father and his young wife loaded a few belongings in a GMC pickup and drove north toward their future.
Like many in their generation they had been shaped by depression and war, toughened by a lifetime scratching at the cotton crops they hoed by walking through dusty fields and harvested by hand-picking bolls by the sackful. Despite that—or perhaps because of it, I suppose—they were idealists, optimists not content with waiting for a better world but ready to start building it for themselves.
They were not afraid when they pointed the navy blue pickup truck northward, drove to the end of the road and found a town called Anchorage, Alaska.
Though its population had boomed with wartime expansion and the opening of the Alaska-Canada Highway, Anchorage was then a small town nonetheless, isolated and remote. As I heard them say a thousand times over the years, to them it seemed the promised land.
My father had no trouble translating the lessons learned in his hardscrabble Texas childhood to his adult concerns in Alaska.
In arguments about the Vietnam War, which he opposed, I often heard him say, “This is a war between the landlords and the tenants, and we’re on the wrong side.” Later I heard him talking with as a neighbor who cautioned that a trifling tax the state was then proposing on oil production would “drive the oil companies out of Alaska.” As I recall my father snorted in reply: “The goddamned Alaska National Guard couldn’t run them out of here now.”
My father, a carpenter, smelled like sweat and cigarette smoke; my mother worked as a bookkeeper at a lumber yard and smelled of Evening In Paris. As it turned out, their aspirations and expectations were rather different, but they were united in their desire to create a better, fairer society for the sons they expected to prosper as they never did. Their ambition did not come to pass in their lifetimes, but lives in me to this day.
No doubt I had been an integral part of my parents’ footloose aspirations—a chubby blond first-born baby carried from Providence Hospital in 1950 to the young couple's unfinished Muldoon homesite. On that cold but snowless October day their hopes and expectations were still high. I spent most of a lifetime in Alaska fighting to advance the dream they had chased northward
“We spend most of our adulthoods trying to grasp the meanings of our parents’ lives,” Philip Lopate once said. “How we shape and answer those questions largely turns us into who we are.”
The poet’s father grew old and died a lingering death, with time aplenty for reflection by both father and son. I was left with no such well considered farewell, not much transition from child to orphan. My parents died in ways that left no final chapters for their stories, tied up no loose ends, resolved nothing. Each departed in midstream, mom at the bottom of a swift downward spiral of addiction—dead at 45—and dad three years later, alone in an overturned car in a whiskey haze, his last words heard only by the patrolman who found the accident: “It hurts.”
Swift, precocious failure ended lives that had once shown bright with promise, and I would spend a lifetime working in that shadow.
I had come of age in the last generation of Alaskans before oil, graduating from East Anchorage High School in 1968. The commencement address I delivered for my class that spring was a predictable bromide of graduation cliches but it was nonetheless an honest reflection of the general optimism that then defined Alaskans.
About a year later Alaska sold oil leases on the North Slope at Prudhoe Bay. The mighty payday that accompanied the 1969 auction was seen as a beacon of optimism at the time, the downpayment on a new society defined by independence and opportunity. The $900 million in leases—worth about $5.3 billion in today’s dollars—promised financial stability and independence the state had never enjoyed.
Though it would be more than 25 years before I recognized it and moved away from my native state, the leases actually had unleashed forces that would inexorably change Alaska. The dream of Alaska exceptionalism steadily eroded, a telling blow to the American dream of perpetual fresh starts somewhere just past the far horizon.
The story unfolded sometime between discovery of oil at Prudhoe and Sarah Palin’s parody of the state’s frontier values. During that span the home of idealists and pioneers became a land of cynical self interest, its larger-than-life legends too often replaced by larger-than-life villains. At one end of the comparison was a group of men and women gathered in what became Constitution Hall at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks to draft a model constitution for a new state. At the other we find a seedy suite in Juneau's Baranof Hotel where a group that called itself the Corrupt Bastards Club drunkenly traded Alaska's frontier birthright for a pocketful of trinkets.
If the American mythology of frontier opportunity and perpetual rebirth was to be tested anywhere, Alaska was the place.
The 500-year history of Europeans’ insistent push to the western edge of North America comes to a cold, abrupt halt in Alaska. Where the tundra plain kisses the cold gray Bering Sea, the continent’s limits are established.
This marks far more than a geographic boundary. As America has been defined by a restless quest for new frontiers, so too is it constrained by the end of what once seemed to be limitless space. Where North America ends at the North Pacific, the old dream of boundless opportunity and second chances ends as well.
At the continent’s northern and western edge, Alaska had long represented a last great hope for the renewal and idealism that drove Americans like my parents westward. Here was yet another opportunity to make good on the promise of a fresh start—and this is where the dream died, transformed by an indulgent generation that sold Alaska’s birthright for a government check.
I feel this personally, because the Weavers’ heritage of westward roaming ends in Alaska as well, and that wasteful generation is my own.
For 239 years—from arrival at the Philadelphia waterfront in 1711 to Anchorage in 1950—the immigrants from whom I am descended moved steadily, relentlessly toward the American frontier, never resting in any place for much more than a generation. My parents were the last; the Weaver pattern changed with me. When it came my time in 1995 to pick up and move I headed not for a physical frontier but an electronic one, moving south and east to California and a strategic planning job in electronic publishing.
As I discovered reviewing old news articles for my book research, my Alaska journalism career had been punctuated with worried musings about our state’s eroding values.
Alaska’s promise felt so real to me for so long. I wanted it to be true.
My mentor Paul Goodrich often told me about the Alaska he discovered as a teenager in the 1930s, a place that demanded its residents grow to match the ever-present challenges of the vast, indifferent wilderness that surrounded them. He told me how, as the caretaker of a remote cabin one winter night near Fairbanks, he walked out into stunning cold to fetch more firewood and stood transfixed at the spectacle of silent snowfields under Arctic moonlight.
"Far away a wolf called out from the hilltop," he remembered nearly 70 years later. "Another wolf answered from even farther. And my heart expanded."
That expansive spirit remained in Paul's heart forever after, as it remained for others of his pioneering generation. It defined them and informed the lives they bequeathed us. We let them down.
The record of my worrying about Alaska’s future begins in 1973, just a year after I returned from college to a job at the Anchorage Daily News, still in the dawn of Alaska’s oil age. Part of it said,
Doesn't anyone else remember that Alaska was a land of bright promise before any of us dreamed of oil or pipelines?
It is as though we Alaskans recently have been infected with a case of monetary myopia that prevents us, when we survey economic horizons, from seeing any farther than the nearest section of 48-inch pipe.
Without the pipeline, we have all been told countless times, Alaska will surely wither and die, strangled in the grip of brigands such as Outsiders, Conservationists and Meddlers.
As a people, Alaskans have bought that pitch—pump, line and tanker....”
Suppose—even if the thought makes you tremble—that oil had not been discovered at Prudhoe Bay.
If Alaskans had never heard of Pet Four, Sag River or Deadhorse, would we have abandoned all hope for our state?
If BP, Exxon and Atlantic Richfield had never drooled about 10 billion barrels of North Slope oil, would our senators have told Congress to run up a white flag signaling the end of Civilization As We Know It?”
...If you never lived in pre-pipeline Alaska, you may not believe our state had a hope of survival without the oil...
What has happened, l fear, is that we all got greedy when the oil companies in 1969 shelled out $900 million to lease some North Slope oil fields. Every day became Christmas Eve for Alaskans, and we began to live in the glow of our expectations rather than the sweat of our current efforts.
Faced with the prospect of dollars flowing into Alaska as freely as the crude flowed out, we have gotten lazy. Here was wealth, ease and prosperity, ours for the asking because nature, in some prehistoric time, saw fit to deposit vast petroleum reserves beneath our Arctic tundra.
No longer will we have to work at greatness: By an accident of geology, we can sit back and let the oil companies pump it out of the frozen oil fields for us.
As tired and worn as the cliche may seem, we have put all our eggs in the billion-dollar basket of Big Oil. Alaskans have willingly donned the blinders, and look to nothing else.
The discovery of North Slope oil may prove to have been a tragedy of the highest order—not because a pipeline across Alaska will necessarily mean disasters, but because it may rob us of our initiative.
By 1973 I’d moved on to join a handful of others in creation of the Alaska Advocate (which I had proposed calling The Turnagain Arm World Defender), a publication with an obvious point of view that reflected our desire to preserve Alaska’s special legacies despite the winds of change.
In one of its first issues, in February 1977, I acknowledge oil development as an inevitable fact of life in Alaska but worried, “the growing fear in the soul of Alaska is that [development] decisions will be orchestrated far away, by those with an eye only to the profits and products, with no feeling for the life we choose. As the wealth we shelter becomes more dear, the price we must pay for our values becomes immense…The pressure is on, and growing. If there is something worth fighting for, prepare to start now.”
Like many in Alaska, we fought, and sometimes we won. Through the late 1970s and early ‘80s the state was perpetually engaged in close-fought battles about fundamental issues: How much of the state would be open for exploitation, how much preserved as parks or wilderness? Would the rights and properties of Alaska Natives be recognized? How effective a watchdog could the state be over global oil producers as they pumped and transported North Slope crude? How much of the oil wealth could be preserved for Alaskans—it was discovered on state land, after—and how much exported along with the crude?
These were not small questions; the answers came in billions of dollars and hundreds of millions of acres of land. The public’s margin of decision often was vanishingly small, never so evident as when the the opposing visions of Jay Hammond and Wally Hickel clashed in a gubernatorial primary decided by just 287 votes.
The magnitude of the issues came into focus in a column I wrote for the Advocate in 1978 when the American supertanker Amoco Cadiz spilled a load of crude oil onto the coast of France.
Don’t you see? The only variable is time. Alaskans are not waiting to see IF a major tanker spill will strike; the only question is WHEN...
If we can do nothing else, we can at least recognize that hard fact. As we watch oil company advertisements advise us of their concern for Alaska, we can remember their concern for France. And when it is time to tax them for the wealth they export, we can take full measure of the costs they will certainly visit on us.
Eleven years later, when the Exxon Valdez was drunkenly run aground in Price William Sound to spills millions of gallons of crude, there would be no pleasure in saying “I told you so.”
In the middle years between Amoco Cadiz and Exxon Valdez no question preoccupied Alaska like oil money: how to get it, what to do with it, who would profit from it? That debate permeated all others. When you talked about environmental regulation the old argument my dad had faced came up again and again: “But you’ll drive the oil companies out of Alaska.” When you pointed out that oil revenue was a lucky geological accident—that the Alaskans of our generation had done nothing to earn or intrinsically deserve it—a chorus of entitled citizens would likely shout you down. If you suggested that Alaskans, like their ancestors, ought to pay taxes as the dues of citizenship, the shouts turned into laughter and eclipsed the argument entirely.
I found two articles from that era that outlined my worries and growing disillusionment. The first was an essay written in 1984 when the state celebrated a Silver Anniversary—25 years of statehood. Though I struggled mightily to come to an optimistic conclusion, most of the essay was cautionary instead.
In most of the old photos, the faces seem happier than today’s.
Grinning out of a 1959 Fur Rendezvous exhibit or marching in a long-forgotten Independence Day parade, the portraits glow as if lighted from within. There were smiles, but more than that: the eyes laughed, too. These were faces sketched in innocence, joy and confidence. Most important was the confidence.
Would tomorrow be better than today? No question. Could a hard-working carpenter turn moonlighting renovation into an empire? You bet. Was there ever a place with ‘manifest destiny’ embroidered across its mountains by the hand of God? Alaska…
In the Alaska of those smiling statehood photographs, children died because the best medical care was a seven-hour plane ride away in Seattle…tuberculosis consumed Alaskans at a fierce rate, Village housing would have needed considerable improvement to deserve a ‘sub-standard’ rating and inflation and the cost of living regularly galloped past national rates…
So why are the faces in those of photos smiling? Perhaps they know a secret…When the Army trucks and Antique Auto Mushers roll through Anchorage on snow-covered February streets, the crowds and the clowns know the truth: Macy’s or the Rose Parade this isn’t. Miss Alaska is likely to be wearing long johns, and it’s tough for the bands to play with anti-freeze on the trombone slides.
But it was fun. The secret of Alaska is that verbs matter more than nouns. It isn’t the parade that’s important, it’s the parading.
Too much of the debate in the 1980s was about nouns: more of this for me, less of that for them. Project ‘80s, a massive public works program in Anchorage, brought a new convention center, a sports arena, a performing arts complex and a new headquarters library, all paid for by oil money at no cost to local residents. As a Fairbanks friend noted at the time, “It’s like you want to buy yourself a Houston off the shelf.”
And when the time came to pay a little more in taxes to maintain the new facilities? Most Alaskans just didn’t want to.
In the fall of 1987 I was invited to present the annual Loussac Lecture at the main library in Anchorage, named for Zachariah Joshua Loussac, a pioneering mayor and philanthropist from the 1940s. The original building in the heart of downtown had proclaimed on one side, “Ye Shall Know the Truth, and the Truth Shall Set you Free,” and it played a large role in my education. I was thrilled to be asked and worked hard to have something useful to say.
By that time the headquarters library had moved from its original location to a new mid-town facility built—you guessed it—with tens of millions in oil money appropriated in the Project 80s extravaganza. Perhaps it was churlish to stand in the splendid new auditorium and complain about Alaskans’ excesses, but I did it anyway.
With the welling forth of oil riches, Alaska came eyeball to eyeball with its long-proclaimed destiny.
Many Alaskans blinked.
Did we exhibit the hearty self-reliance that is the legacy of our pioneers?
We did not.
Did we behave differently than the Oklahoma Indian or desert Bedouin suddenly confronted with massive wealth?
We did not.
Did we husband this once-in-an-epoch windfall to seed the gardens of our children's future?
We did not.
What did we do instead?
We demanded cheap housing loans, and then property tax relief to further subsidize them.
I went to high school in pre-oil Alaska, and we had bands and football teams and French clubs. We had them because our parents participated in that society—with their time and energy and checkbooks.
Now, Alaska school districts are willing to sacrifice education to avoid a three-mill tax.
What else did we do instead?
We lavished billions on questionable construction projects.
We wanted an instant culture, without history or sacrifice—and a huge percentage of that spending went to Seattle suppliers and laborers attracted by our spending spree.
What else did we do instead?
We elected leaders expressly for their inability to tell us no—and then cursed them when the sugar daddy died.
We established the “Alaska Compromise” in Juneau -- a deal that was not a conciliation, a meeting halfway, but simply an arrangement where both sides get everything they wanted.
Senators openly acknowledged their shameful new credo: “Don't question my projects and I won't question yours.”
That is corrupting, no matter how worthy some of the projects may have been.
When we sacrificed the honorable process of government to meet our short-term appetites, we also sacrificed our innocence.
We have been largely unable to admit that behavior even now. We tend to blame distant Arabs or legislators past.
But it seems more accurate to acknowledge, as a correspondent from Ketchikan wrote to me, that “Alaska, awaking after its long debauch, is ashamed to see old friends.”
And which old friends are those?
Independence. Self-reliance. Confidence. Idealism.
Three and a half years ago, I wrote:
“Ten years after statehood, the state leased land for drilling up at Prudhoe Bay. That $900 million dollar payday was to have been the endowment that bought Alaska happiness.
“Ten years later still, billions of dollars from Prudhoe's production flowed through the pipeline and bulged our bank accounts. Then we learned all over again that if money can't buy happiness, neither can MORE money.”
What had happened to Alaska? Was there time enough left to change course?
I thought so then but I kept worrying. Also in the late ‘80s I wondered in a column, “Can anybody remember exactly when Alaska filled up with whiners? At what point in our fairly recent past did we decide the world owed us a living? When was it that we decided to try and trade independence and self-respect for a guaranteed annual raise?”
And then Exxon blackened the tides of Prince William Sound. In March 1989 (almost precisely 23 years after an earlier disaster, the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964), Exxon’s drunken skipper ran a loaded supertanker aground on Bligh Reef and my worst dreams started coming true.
The environmental despoliation was far from the worst of it. After all, the risk of a catastrophic spill had been with us since the first barrel of crude entered the trans-Alaska pipeline in June 1977. In a way I didn’t even blame the oil companies. They had behaved as I knew they would, in their own economic interest, as oil companies always have. Now the disaster had happened, it was as horrible as predicted, and there was nothing to do but work through it.
It seemed to me for a while that the spill had at long last galvanized Alaskans into taking responsibility for their state. More clearly than a hundred newspaper columns or a thousand campaign speeches, Exxon’s spill made plain that we could rely on no one else to safeguard the treasures of Alaska.
I thought I felt that realization take hold. Recognition of the disaster and its origins rallied the legislature briefly to strengthen environmental regulations and reexamine the severance taxes and royalties oil companies paid for the right to take such risks. Citizens seemed to see beyond the television commercials proclaiming that oil companies cared as much as we did about Alaska. Maybe a new understanding would emerge from the tragedies of Exxon Valdez.
But it didn’t. Before long oil companies held the legislature more fully in their thrall than ever before. It took only until May of the next year for a pro-oil senator to torpedo a bill that would have allowed state inspections of oil tankers. “Obviously, oil is back,” State Rep. Mike Davis told the Seattle Times afterward. ”And it certainly didn't take long.”
From there retreat only accelerated. Before long a crude, bullying oilfield millionaire named Bill Allen bought the Anchorage Times, was honored and celebrated as Alaskan of the Year, palled around with Sen. Ted Stevens and called a legislator to his suite in the Baranof Hotel to remind him, “I own your ass.”
I’m glad my father wasn’t around to see it. But he wouldn’t have been surprised.
Perhaps I should not have been, either, but I always was a sucker where Alaska was concerned.
I left Alaska in 1995 against all expectations—my own and nearly everybody who knew me. I was a lifer if ever there was one. When people asked if I had lived in Alaska all my life, I always just answered, “Not yet.”
I’d been gone a while before I started to see why.
A couple of years after leaving a friend asked me to write a foreword for a history of oil in Alaska and I was flattered to do it. I didn’t want to cause troubles for his book and consciously toned down my comments about what the industry has meant in Alaska.
After I showed it to my wife she told me, “You know, this is awfully bitter.” So I toned it down considerably and sent it to the publisher, who told me the same thing again. Then I toned it down again.
I hadn’t examined my feelings closely until then. That’s when I realized I’d left because Alaska broke my heart.
It couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t loved the place so much. I still do, but the ugliness that ended our affair has only gotten worse since I left.
Sarah Palin is certainly not responsible for the deterioration of the state, but she is a perfect representation of it. How did the spirit of Alaska’s pioneers—of my parents, of Paul Goodrich—devolve into such selfishness and foolishness, all within my lifetime?
It took such a short time; it all unfolded between discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay and Palin’s parody of the state’s frontier values. During that span the beloved home of idealists and pioneers became a land of cynical self interest, its larger-than-life legends too often replaced by larger-than-life villains.
Always before I have managed to return from my jeremiads to a place of optimism about Alaska. I’m looking for that place again.
Shortly before his death in 1993, Wallace Stegner wrote an essay about the West that I believe also speaks perfectly about Alaska, that prototype of the American frontier:
“Deeply lived in places are the exception rather than the rule in the West. For one thing, all Western places are new; for another, many of the people who established them came to pillage, or to work for pillagers, rather than to settle for life. When the pillaging was done or the dream exploded, they moved on, to be replaced in the next boom by others just as hopeful and just as footloose. Successive waves have kept Western towns alive but prevented them from deepening the quality of their life, and with every wave the land is poorer.
“(Yet) somehow, against probability, some sort of indigenous, recognizable culture has been growing on Western ranches, and in Western towns and even in Western cities. It is the product not of the boomers but of the stickers, not of those who pillage and run but of those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.
“I believe that eventually, perhaps within a generation or two, they will work out some sort of compromise between what must be done to earn a living and what must be done to restore health to the earth, air and water. I think they will learn to control corporate power and to dampen the excess that has always marked their region, and will arrive at a degree of stability and a reasonably sustainable economy based on the resources that they will know how to cherish and renew.”
Why did I write this?
During more than 40 years living in Alaska, I came to realize how much I appreciated the Outsiders who were always telling us how things should be done.
How much? Not one goddamned bit.
This essay may feel like that kind of criticism to many readers. I assure you that I am not in the market for the kind of scorn I once dished out on such occasions.
I am writing this only because I must.
First, despite having moved away 18 years ago, I feel like an Alaskan in many important respects. If I didn’t care about the place so much—if I didn’t still love it—I wouldn’t bother trying to sort out what happened to the state that attracted my idealistic parents in the 1940s, or examine why it changed the way it did during my life there.
More importantly, I write this because I am a writer, a storyteller. This is what I do and in large measure who I am. Whether you agree with my analysis or think I’m entirely wrong, know this: I did not come to these conclusions lightly. I am not just shooting off my mouth or (as we used to say about editorial writers) simply coming down from the hills after the battle to shoot the wounded.
I hope that Alaska’s best days may indeed still be ahead, but I do not believe the state will get there if it keeps heading the way it’s going now. If I can nudge your debate about that—by reminding you of something, or educating somebody, or even just making you mad—then I’ll feel better.
Alaska is a precious jewel now balanced on a precarious ledge of decision and destiny. We will all need to act from our better natures to move it back to safety, and forward to greatness.