MEMOIR: CHAPTER 17 North to Alaska

North to Alaska

MicroSIFT staff, NWREL, 1977. My Apple IIe! Don, Judy, Dianne Pietila, Sandy Honeycutt (the immortal “Three Divas”!) and Ken

During 1976-1977, the Apple II came out, and I was on the Apple Education Advisory Board. Steve Jobs gave me my own Apple II with a brass plaque engraved with my name. (Silly me, I no longer have it!) With our new grant, we developed a national data base called MicroSIFT to test, evaluate and classify the rapidly proliferating volume of computer programs for home and classroom use. (Remember “The Oregon Trail”?) The Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) had become an early developer, adopting Apple computers for schools as soon as they came out. MECC then turned its attention to developing quality software for classroom use.

By the end of my grant in 1977 I was preparing to write a new grant proposal, when I was once again called into Larry’s office. This time, he had a guest: Arnie from the Alaska State Department of Education. Tom, another Lab Division Director, was also at the table.

“Judy, we have a proposal for you to think about,” Larry began.

Arnie, an irrepressible true Alaskan with the body type of a sturdy dockworker, interrupted him. “We want you to direct this contract. We’re writing a plan to bring telecommunications into every village in Alaska. Telephones, satellite TV, then we’ll start on curriculum for high school courses to be taught by telecommunications.”

This didn’t sound like another end-of-grant Glasgow deal. It sounded real. And exciting.

“Let me take a breath,” I said. And I did. Breathed, and tried to compose a better list of questions than I had asked the last time I was offered a remote project.

“Who’s funding it? And where would we be located?”

“The State is funding the entire thing—oil money.” Arnie grinned. Alaska was feeling pretty flush with oil money in 1977, distributing oil money checks to every resident like an inverted tax. “And you’d have your offices right in Juneau, the capital,” Ernie said. “Where the State Department can monitor the project.”

“Then who would be my boss?”

Tom spoke up. “I would be. You’d transfer to my Division. Arnie and I wrote this plan together.”

“So I’d report directly to…whom?”

“To Tom,” Arnie said. “Since you are the contractors, we would simply act as the equivalent of sidewalk inspectors, the people who contract with NWREL and Tom to pour a nice sidewalk, and every so often we’d come by with a stick and measure how deep the concrete was poured and if it’s up to specs.”

“And I’d keep my present level and salary?”

“No, you’ll get a raise. The cost of living is higher in Juneau.”

“So…I’d give progress reports to…Arnie? Daily reports? Or what?”

“More like daily collaboration, if you want that. You’ll need our collaboration just to get the lay of the land, to get the cooperation of some of the more stubborn school superintendents in the remotest villages. And of course, you’d give us scheduled reports on the status of deliverables.”

“Deliverables. Such as…?”

Arnie paused to consider. Tom interrupted. “The usual format: completion of installing telecommunication lines and satellite feeds, status of video curriculum development, status of agreement from school superintendents, next steps, schedules…that kind of thing.”

Arnie had an irrepressible sense of humor. “And status of Lydia Buckham, who lives in Nome and thinks the whole idea is nuts and we should all be wearing tinfoil hats. No doubt she’ll be writing to you. Regularly.”

It sounded like a huge challenge, and great fun and great learning.

“I’m in,” I said. “Contingent on a couple of things—do I understand this correctly, then, that I’d report to Tom at the Lab in Portland as my supervisor, and you, Arnie, would be the physically close but one-step-removed person to whom I would send status reports on the deliverables? And you’d help set up the right contacts for computer access, superintendent access, permission to install lines, satellite access, that kind of thing?”

“That pretty well sums it up,” Arnie said. “I’d be your contract monitor, since the contract is between NWREL and the State of Alaska. But your boss boss, that’s Tom.”

This could work. Tom and Arnie were great friends, and I could feel that they both had a great commitment to this project, and great confidence in me. Larry had said very little. In fact, he had poured coffee for everyone, then leaned back to listen.

“Oh, there’s one thing, but that’s a ways off,” Arnie added. “I may hire a friend of mine, Dr. Drabble, to take over contract monitoring, maybe sometime next year if I get too busy.”

I didn’t know, yet, what that would mean, for the project or for me. Just a new contract monitor, no big deal. In fact, the deal had already been made. No “may hire” about it.

“Where’s he from?” I asked.

“He’s just finished grad school, teaching at the University of Kentucky right now,” Arnie said, “but interested in distance and on-line learning.” Drabble sounded young, and inexperienced.

But distance learning would be the focus of this project. We could end up being great collaborators, this Dr. Drabble and I.

~ ~ ~

I didn’t write a continuation grant, and my staff was assigned to other projects within the Lab. Instead, I began planning with the kids for how they wanted to spend the next school year, and planning and hiring for the Alaska Telecommunications Project, which would begin in December.

Mike had started his freshman year at the University of Oregon, and Kelley wanted to finish her last year of high school at Barlow High School, where she was a popular actress in the drama department, so she chose to live in Gresham with my cousin. Laurie was temporarily living with her Dad, but would follow me to Alaska as soon as I was settled. Ralph, of course, would go along. He had established a consulting practice, and had always wanted to live and fish in Alaska, a fisherman’s paradise. I was already feeling the pangs of empty nest syndrome. It was hard to say goodbye to Mike, but it was time. With Kelley, it didn’t feel like time yet, but we promised lots of back-and-forth visits. It was hard to leave her. And harder still to leave Laurie, even though she would soon join us. She stayed with her Dad for a couple of months until I was settled in Alaska.

Juneau, across the Gastineau Channel from my house on Douglas Island

On December 7, 1976, I arrived in Juneau on the State Ferry from Seattle. The trip had been transcendentally beautiful, with Orca whales showing off along the way, and the landscape becoming increasingly snow-covered and mountainous. My first night alone in a new, empty house facing the Gastineau Channel across from Juneau, I spent long sacred moments just sitting on a box and gazing out at the steadily falling snow. Excited, scared, eager. My family and my staff and our furniture would arrive soon. I was, for the moment, blissfully alone and awestruck by the beauty of this wild and challenging place.

We hired a telecommunications engineer, a software engineer, an administrative assistant, a secretary, a documentarian (writer), a field organizer, and a programmer. Scouted office locations in Juneau, and found a large house for rent, just up the hill from the State Department of Education. The house had room for everyone to have an office, plus a large dining room for meetings and a living room which could be the reception area with the secretary’s desk.

Lest it sound as if “hiring” were that simple…no. The first difficulty came when our interviewing committee at the Lab didn’t think my most important criterion was important at all, and was probably illegal. It was, simply, the question: “How well do you get along with your mother?” Okay, probably illegal. In fact, it was perhaps the female equivalent of “Hire her. She’s got great legs.”

But I found other ways to ask it. Casual conversation, “Are your parents still alive? Where do they live now? Do you ever get to see them?” I could weed out the men who would have big issues with me being their supervisor with that one simple question. And it never failed, when the committee overruled me, the man they hired in spite of his saying “I never see her. We don’t get along,” about his mother, would resent me, and transfer his mom-stuff to me in ways that made supervision a constant problem. The one fellow who eagerly chatted about having just spent two weeks with his mom, putting in new cabinets since hers were getting a bit shabby—he was the most loyal and dear staff member of all.

Several times, we hired someone who accepted the job, then flew in to Juneau to check it out, took one look, and got on the next plane out. We had to offer exorbitantly high salaries to attract people to live there. As it turned out, our crew was an assemblage of people who were very skilled at their jobs, but sometimes dysfunctional as people. And the long, icy, dark winters didn’t help. Cabin fever is no joke. People who are mildly marginal get downright crazed by the end of the winter, and sane people become marginal. Our software engineer, Rollie, a waiflike blonde computer genius brought in from the East coast, showed early signs of being a little wacky, but we overlooked it. Until we came in one day to find he had used a large and apparently tough pair of clippers to sever the inch-thick electrical cord of our programmer’s Teletype terminal. We dealt with that, and dealt with him (it was to “get even” with the programmer who used the terminal sometimes when he needed access), but put him on probation. The next incident was not so easily handled.

It was a quiet noon hour, and I was alone in the office, except for Rollie, who was puttering in the kitchen, fixing his usual lunch: an entire head of raw garlic. (Not a clove—a head. That’s lots of cloves of garlic.) He wandered into my office and sat down. I looked up. The expression on his face was…well, smug was the only appropriate word.

“What’s up?” I said.

“I’ve got that state systems administrator right where I want him now,” he said.

I put down my pen and focused. “What are you talking about?” We used the state’s mainframe computer, where all state records, including personnel and salary records, were stored. We had access because we were contracted by the state, but there was certainly an element of trusting us to use appropriate discretion and stay out of areas in the computer that were unauthorized and heavily password protected.

Rollie practically crowed, bouncing back and forth in his chair. “I cracked all their passwords—and they have quite a wall of passwords to get through—but I did it!”

I felt cold all over, even though it was spring, and the weather was beginning to warm up.

“You…compromised the security of the State of Alaska’s computer.”

“I did, I did!”

“For what purpose?” Why were we even having this conversation? Why hadn’t I already leaped across the desk and strangled him with my bare hands?

“I called him, told him what I’d done, and told him for $1,000 I’d tell him how I did it.”

My words were ice cold. “You should have asked for $10,000, because you are out of a job. The first thing you’ll do, right before you clear the personal things out of your desk, is call him back and apologize. No, on second thought, just clear out your stuff. And be sure you’re on the four o’clock flight out of here.”

“I’ll call him myself,” I said, and turned to the phone.

The systems administrator was remarkably understanding. Perhaps it was my groveling, and my apologies, and my assurance that Rollie would be out of town by nightfall. “No hard feelings,” he said. “Actually, it highlighted how our security system has holes in it. If that little creep could get through, anyone could. We’re working on it.”

Then I called  my boss, Tom, in Portland. Tom was on the next plane to Juneau, and burst into the office while Rollie was still clearing his desk and muttering epithets. He shut Rollie’s office door, and I heard shouting, lots of shouting. The “little creep” emerged red-faced, carrying a small bag, and left, forever. Still hurling epithets and threats. Broke my favorite rosebud teacup in the kitchen, on his way out.

Then, we had to find a talented systems programmer who could pick up where Rollie left off, and who also would be able to interact appropriately with other humans. Tom and I talked, and we knew this next one would be a high-cost item. And probably worth it. But no guarantees.

Our engineer turned out to be a highly skilled telecommunications engineer for whom bill collectors called the office constantly, and who spent every evening drinking the hours away in the rowdy Alaska bars, where one drink (in 1977!) would run upwards of $6-7. Which explained the bill collectors. But somehow, he showed up every day, and did his job.

By the end of the first year of the 3-year project, we had located or installed telecommunications capability to every village in Alaska. Often, a village would have only a single telephone, usually in the office of the school superintendent. There was one superintendent, in a village on the Bering Sea, whom we could never reach. The phone simply rang and rang. So we hired one of the acclaimed “bush planes” and headed out there. The plane, as I recall, had pieces of rope as door handles, and the doors wouldn’t stay shut. The pilot assured me that once we were in the air the air pressure would hold the door shut, and meanwhile, if it made me uncomfortable, I could just hold onto the rope. Which I did. Once in the air, I tried not to notice that he navigated by glancing down at his lap, at what looked suspiciously like a service-station-provided highway map. But we made it safely, landed in a tiny village, and went looking for the superintendent. Found him having a snack in his office, which was piled high with dusty paperwork.

“Did you get the letters the State Department has been sending you about the telecommunications project?”

He chewed. “Probably.” He waved at the piles of papers, clearly undisturbed for, perhaps, years. “Don’t pay no attention to those things. Don’t need those jokers telling me how to run my school.” He was one of the superintendents who let school out two weeks early every year for whale hunting.

I tried a new tack. “Do you have a phone? We’ve been trying to call you.”

He looked around the office. “Yeah, got one in here somewhere.” He dug around under his desk, and finally came up, triumphant, with a black desk telephone. Grimy, unused, and not connected to anything. Just a phone. He clapped it on top of the pile of papers, dusted it off with his sleeve, took a big bite of his smoked salmon sandwich and leaned back in his swivel chair.

“There’s your phone. Now. Whatcha want?”

~ ~ ~

During the second year of the project, we established the satellite connections and were lining up video science courses for high school kids, so they wouldn’t have to leave their villages and go to a boarding school in the “lower 48” to get a high school education. It was intense work, and our staff was bonded almost as a family, getting through the hard winters—this had been our second—and working long hours. Everyone was getting tired of the high drink prices in the local bars, so we regularly adjourned to my house after work. By the time the others showed up with beer and tortilla chips, I had fixed a fondue pot of Velveeta cheese melted together with a can of Rotel chilis and tomatoes. Ambrosia.  (It was 1978, after all…) Everyone played with my cute little Commodore PET computer, which was almost a member of the family, and our little dog Joplin, who was a member of the family.

Laurie was doing well in high school, finishing a year early, taking advanced credit courses at the university, and working at a tourist café which catered to cruise ships. She learned to crochet afghans. Her boyfriend, whom we liked a lot, lived nearby, and was respectful and protective of her.

Our family took advantage of the incomparable beauty of the Alaska landscape to hike, climb, ski, and visit the harbor and glacier. I flew home to Portland once a month to catch up with Kelley, and sometimes Mike, and confer with Tom at the Lab. Sometimes Kelley, and/or Mike came to Juneau for a visit.

Spring breakup, when the snow started to melt and the ice broke up in the rivers, was always cause for celebration in Alaska, yet the melting snow revealed an ugliness beneath the surface that had been covered in pristine, crystalline whiteness all winter. Underneath that beauty was discarded junk, thawing dog poop, and dead grass.

And then Dr. Drabble arrived. He took over for Arnie as contract monitor, but never really understood the concept of “measuring the concrete to make sure it meets the specs.”

Over lunch, I tried to find out his qualifications for monitoring a project as complex and innovative as the Alaska Telecommunications Project. It turned out his job experience was limited to a couple of years teaching at the University of Kentucky, where he taught theoretical classes on management, research, and evaluation. Straight from grad school to an assistant prof at a southern university. That was it. He was interested in “economics of distance learning.” And he loved to hunt and fish. Hence, Arnie. Arnie owned a 40-foot fishing boat, and took his people out in it for parties. And fishing. And Arnie planned regular hunting trips with his guys.

Drabble’s large and obese frame was somewhat camouflaged by suits slightly too large, no bulges, and a self-conscious dignified walk, the way a clumsy person walks when he’s knocked over art objects once too often. His florid complexion was not from outdoor exposure. He knotted his tie high under his double chin.

It wasn’t long before I understood that Arnie had promised him not only an adventure in the Alaska wilds, but the opportunity to supervise a large and important project in distance learning, with contractors from NWREL to carry out his orders and plans.

And yet, he found himself an employee of the State Department of Education, relegated to a tiny pod-like office with half-walls, in the middle of a large, bustling office area full of other pod people like himself—most of whom were long-time Alaskans who had little or no use—or open contempt—for a “university person” with no real-world experience.

It must have been hard for a university person, who was accustomed to respect from his students, at least.

He often spoke enviously of our spacious quarters, and started looking around for a more suitable office than his pod, since he was “in charge now.” He suggested that he should move into my large office in the front, and I should move upstairs. Arnie, overhearing, quickly stopped that idea in its tracks. Drabble spent most of his time hanging around our office, asking questions, clocking people in and out for breaks and lunch hour, and complaining to me if a staff member didn’t seem to be measuring up to his expectations, particularly about how long a lunch hour they took. He had the manner and the subtlety of a pushy used-car salesman who just won’t let you leave the lot until he’s finished with you.

Dr. Drabble had understood from Arnie’s vague promises that he would come to Alaska to be the “Project Director” and when he arrived to find me in place and doing just fine without his help, he inserted his rather portly body into every nook and cranny he could find, criticizing, poking, questioning, disapproving.

His demands for reporting became outrageous and constant. The project had been successfully underway for nearly two years, with many of our goals already accomplished, but he decided to analyze the original (Tom and Arnie) plan from the very beginning, and began to redesign how it “should have been done in the first place, if it had been done right.” Clearly, I disagreed, as did Tom. Arnie mostly ignored him, clapped him on the back, and took him fishing or hunting.

Our relationship turned adversarial, with his daily or hourly criticisms. I tried to ameliorate, took him to lunch, discussed every move we made, which had not previously been part of the “collaboration” with Arnie. Finally, I began to wake up at 3 a.m. every day, unable to get back to sleep. Worrying, anxious. Soon, I couldn’t sleep at all. My patience had worn to a thin thread. This project was no longer fun, and was beginning to feel “not do-able.” My old self-doubts, anxieties and fears about being “up to the task” resurfaced.

The last straw was the semiannual “deliverables” progress report, which everyone on the staff had worked hard on for weeks. It was thick, spiral bound with a nice cover. Tom had read and approved it after minor revisions. I submitted it to Dr. Drabble to “measure the depth of the concrete.” The pattern had been that Arnie would read the reports, make marginal annotations with his questions,  comments and suggestions, and we would then meet to discuss and resolve his concerns. But now Arnie had other fish to fry in the Department. The ATP was Dr. Drabble’s single assignment, his single obsession, and he didn’t have enough to do.

Soon, the progress report came back up the hill by messenger. I opened it. Every single page of the inch-thick report had been densely scrawled over with heavy red pen. In every margin, over the top and under the text, covering the back of every page. I began to read it, and very quickly lost heart. I was done. So very done. I composed a cover letter to Arnie, and to Dr. Drabble, and revised it twice to take out the rude words, but basically it said, “Take this report and put it wherever you want to.”

I sent it back by messenger.

Arnie called within minutes. “Listen, Ducks,” he said, his voice low and regretful.

“I know,” I said. “I’m done.”

“I’m afraid so.”

The new CEO of the Lab, Bob, flew up to Juneau. He offered me two choices: return to the Portland Lab or return to the Portland Lab.

Dr. Drabble never achieved his dream of becoming the project director. ATP was assigned to an inexperienced associate at the Lab who essentially closed it down, with “deliverables” that weren’t actually products or accomplishments, but empty reports written by a clueless staff writer. Remote superintendents sighed in relief and put their telephones back under their desks. Drabble went back to university teaching, where he remains. Eventually, remote villages in Alaska did obtain “distant learning” ability via telecommunications, but it took many more years, and the Lab was no longer involved in facilitating it.

~ ~ ~

Back in Portland, Kelley left college and came to live with me. Ralph returned and we bought a house next door to Bob, the Lab CEO. Bob’s wife Susan joined Ralph as his partner in his consulting business, and they set up an office nearby.

Laurie, meanwhile, was in her senior year in Juneau. She didn’t want to leave, she had a job and was taking night classes at the University, feeling independent and capable. We arranged for her to live on her own with a roommate, left her my car, and she would return to Portland after graduation, a few months away. More empty nest pains.

I went back to work on a small project at the Lab, but soon got funding for another Computers in Education program, and once again, an office with a window, a secretary, and a staff. But my heart wasn’t in it. I suspected Ralph was having an affair, this time probably with his “business partner” with whom he frequently traveled on “business trips.” But he denied it and called me paranoid. The summer of 1979 was sad and lonely, with plenty of time to ruminate about the debacle in Alaska.

Tom, however, assured me that he and Arnie had doomed me from the start, by designing a project to be led by a two-headed horse, which could never have worked that way. I had another mental image of that particular “horse” in which Drabble wasn’t the head. Bob even offered to “call in some chips” and see that Drabble was fired, but I declined. I knew he would leave on his own, after he realized that he would never get to be the project director of his dreams. And he did leave, soon after everything he had coveted had been destroyed.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “MEMOIR: CHAPTER 17 North to Alaska

  1. tell ya the truth–I am riveted by the stories…and I had the same mental image of that drabble ‘horse’ — this is so fun. (I had no idea you have done soooooo much and with apple no less). Keep those cards and letters comin’! and thank you.

    • judyallen

      Thank you! Perhaps I overdid it. Ask me if I care.
      Glad you’re enjoying the stories!
      Getting ready now to launch into Part II, a 90 degree turn….

  2. dehelen

    I look forward to reading your memoir as much as if it were a cliff-hanger, Judy. You are doing such a beautiful job of writing about what it was like to be a feminist “back in the day.” Day to day. Thank you so much for writing this and sharing it.

  3. Lianne Thompson

    Judy, thanks for writing about Alaska. I can still see it and smell it and remember so many adventures there. You bring it back with your writing. More importantly, your writing describes humans evolving, in a variety of circumstances and modes, and that inspires. Thanks!

    • judyallen

      Alaska is such a “love it or hate it” state. But anyone who has ever lived there somehow always dreams of going back. My evolution continues.

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