I don’t remember the exact reasons, but after a single year at North Star, I went to live with my dad and his new wife, Sharon, changing schools to attend Willow Crest Elementary for fifth grade. The house is gone now, the enormous lot turned into a condo complex, but it was a pretty sweet spot where Northern Lights Boulevard splits into Benson Boulevard heading toward the heart of Anchorage’s business district. It was my first taste of the freedom and danger that came from living with my dad full-time.
The one real rule was a total lack of rules. I got myself up and made it to school by bike or bus depending on the weather. I would return home each day for dinner, before disappearing until bedtime rolled around whenever. I’m not sure how long it would have taken before dad or Sharon asked why I wasn’t following some sort of schedule, but it does explain why it was the first place Abby and I wanted to live when our mom got too demanding while being the last destination of choice for mom when we got out of control and she couldn’t take it for another second without losing her mind.
The small house was a pale yellow, 1950s split-level with a huge kitchen, living room and dining room upstairs long before the “open floor plan” was what everyone wanted. A large bedroom and bathroom shared the lower level with a laundry room. Both levels and a garage door were reached via the tiled landing and stairway found when entering the front door.
Since there was no second bedroom for his son, a large pantry off the kitchen and dining room was leveraged. It was a ten by fifteen feet space with nine foot ceilings and a single large window looking out on the side of the house. My old man was a handy sort, so he used the rear of the closet for a lofted bed seven feet of the ground made of a 2X12 frame and plywood platform with an eight-inch foam bed custom-cut to accommodate the dimensions. The sleeping loft was reached via a 2X4 ladder secured near the window. This left the entire floor space free for a dresser, a desk, bookcases and a horizontal bar for hanging my clothes.
My stepmom had an old Weimaraner named Duke who was my immediate pal. Beau, my adopted black lab, came a few months later. We hung out in the backyard, mostly, a heavily-wooded tract stretching more than 150 feet to a dirt alley tucked in an odd corner of the neighborhood behind our house. Halfway to the alley, hidden from the large windows along the back wall of the house by thick evergreens and aspens, was an old shed that was barely standing and became an awesome fort. An old mattress with extra blankets provided a place for the pack to sprawl while empty plastic milk crates held comic books, snack goods, pilfered cigarettes and other more illicit items.
My cousin Steve became my stomping around partner for that year with my dad. He was a year younger, but we were thick as thieves in short order when I showed up unexpectedly at the school he already attended. I had no friends of my own on that side of town, so it was a bit of luck to find him well integrated into the social order. I just hooked into Steve’s peer group and away we went on adventures of all shapes, sizes and legality. BMX bicycles were our main mode of transport, even in the dead of winter, but Anchorage had a decent bus system as well which took us even further afield.
My dad didn’t have two nickels to rub together most days, but Steve’s mom, Aunt Lydia, was married to a corporate executive who could afford to foot the bill for our weekend trips to nearby Alyeska Ski Resort. It kept me in a life-style I had become accustomed to living with Doctor Demented. She drove her large sedan expertly up the winding Seward Highway, a majestic inlet stretching away to a line of coastal mountains on our right while steep cliffs on the left defined the jagged edge of a similar range.
The sun wouldn’t make an appearance until after ten and would stay out until four or so before “night” skiing started and continued through the evening hours. Steve and I would stop tearing up the slopes over the next ten hours for sustenance or bathroom breaks and not much else. The ride home was always a bit more harrowing as my aunt spent most of her day sucking down Bloody Mary’s in the morning and screwdrivers all afternoon in main lodge’s bar at the bottom of the hill.
I still don’t know how we didn’t become another statistic one of those dark and curvy nights.
Back home, I learned the ins and outs of Boomer drug culture since my dad and Sharon didn’t hide anything, and I wasn’t the type of kid to look away. They didn’t encourage me to partake, of course, but their own indulgences ensured I was free to experiment with whatever temptations were at hand. It wasn’t long after I settled into my new home that I dug into a batch of chocolate chip cookies made with a special dose of THC-laced butter. I’m not sure how many I ate, but I suspect it was more than just a couple given my current cookie consumption when paired with a huge glass of milk.
The last event to leave a lasting impression from my stay at the kooky yellow house went down at our regular trip to Shakey’s Pizza Parlor. Abby was on hand for her requisite old man time, though this visit would prove to be more memorable than most. Dad was a gin and tonic man with just enough coke to keep the party going long after his lights should have gone out, so Pepsi was his drink of choice on pizza nights. My stepmom was a fan of pharmaceutical entertainments with beer chasers no matter what was on the menu.
Quaaludes and Michelob to be exact.
We ordered pizzas and Mojos (thick-cut, deep-fried potato discs) on the way into the establishment and then found a high-topped booth overlooking the small video arcade to wait for the grub to arrive. My sister and I disappeared into the land of animated amusement while the adults did their thing at the table. Pizza and potatoes were delivered and consumed. Dad may have played pinball or air hockey with us, but those kind of details are fuzzy at best. What remains crystal clear was Sharon getting pounded into the pavement in short order. Instead of passing out like a respectable drunk, her voice rose in volume until every family in the restaurant could hear her complaints and was sneaking glances in our direction.
My dad grabbed her around the waist at some point and carried her outside, desperate hands grasping at the wooden bars separating the entrance from the dining room. She actually went totally horizontal when she latched on to a pole for a brief, defiant moment and my dad continued to pull on her legs before she eventually lost her grip. Abby and I followed along behind, wishing for invisibility and hoping none of our friends were there, as pops wrestled our stepmom out of the stunned pizza joint and into the brown Dodge Dart parked out front.