September 27, 2009

It’s So Cold in Alaska


In the mid-‘70s, the walls of my small bedroom were covered with movie posters. They were typical fare for a ten year-old at the time, I guess: giant monsters and disaster films (which were all the rage). The dozen or so posters that wouldn’t fit on the wall were rolled up, tied with a rubber band, and stored in the closet.

            Nowadays most movie posters consist of carefully posed, artfully-lit photos of the stars. It’s cheaper that way. But back then actual paintings—highly stylized, hyper-realistic paintings—became the basis for the posters. It was real movie poster art— a unique and sadly lost form. More often than not, the posters were like little movies unto themselves, and like sideshow banners they usually promised much more than anything inside the theater could ever possibly deliver. Painters didn’t have to worry about production costs, so were free to create images of what the movie was supposed to look like, with 300 foot tall monsters, half-naked women, and worldwide carnage.

            Of all the one-sheets on my wall in 1974, my absolute favorite was for Earthquake. It featured a decimated city in flames, collapsed bridges, smashed cars, and bodies—lots of bodies—falling from lord knows where. They looked like they were just dropping out of the sky like rain or pigeons. Across the bottom of the poster in electric blue letters was the copyrighted logo that read “In Sensurround!”

            The kicker, though, was the title lettering. The word “earthquake” was painted in cement-colored 3-D letters, as if they’d been carved from a road or a bridge, and those letters themselves were uneven and cracked and crumbling away onto all those falling bodies beneath them. You could almost feel the Sensurround just looking at that artwork.

            I studied that poster for hours, and spent many more hours trying to recreate the “Earthquake” font with pencil and paper.

            I didn’t have many skills as a child, but after a few weeks of practice I could whip out that crumbling 3-D “Earthquake” in a minute (and often did). I think I learned more about visual perspective from trying to recreate that poster than any art teacher in any school ever taught me.

            So that became my one skill. When I doodled in class, that’s what I doodled. Classmates and teachers alike—people who had no reason to talk to me beforehand—expressed their admiration. It was my first claim to fame.

            Now for some reason in Mrs. Hansen’s class we were doing a big section on Alaska. We were in Wisconsin at the time, so I can’t say why we were studying Alaska in such depth for three months, but we were.

            (Come to think of it, it probably had something to do with the Alaska oil pipeline, which was quite a big deal in the news.)

            In any case, we learned about Alaska’s history and environment and animals. We read a bunch of short stories about life in Alaska. Most of it was unbelievably boring.

            The only thing that made the Alaska section worthwhile at all was the massive 1964 earthquake that struck Anchorage. It was one of the most powerful earthquakes on record, and left me all a-tingle. There was even some newsreel footage of it, cars skidding across the road while the camera shook like crazy. That was something I could get excited about. A little too excited maybe. I’d been studying earthquakes on my own ever since the Charlton Heston movie came out, so now being given a public forum like this to show off what I’d learned, well . . . it made me pretty unbearable.

            When the teacher announced the final project for the Alaska section, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Someone or something was smiling down on me, that’s for damn sure.

            What was going to happen, she said, was that we were going to be broken into groups of four or five, and each group would be assigned one of the stories we’d read. Our job was to draw a big poster based on the story we were assigned. (Teachers back then assigned a lot of drawings and posters. I think it saved them the trouble of trying to decipher all those outlandish fourth grade scrawls.)

            This was a gimme, I figured. We’d read a story about the earthquake. Everyone in the class, Mrs. Hansen included, knew that I was an annoying little freak about earthquakes and spent my days sketching mini versions of the Earthquake poster. There was no question that I would be in the group assigned to do the story about the Great Alaska Earthquake. I went to bed that night already making plans and sketches in my head, giddy with anticipation.

The next day she divided us into small groups, and the members of each group scooted their desks together. Mrs. Hansen, who had written the name of each story on a slip of paper beforehand, dropped them all into a stocking cap, shook them up, and began walking around the classroom, holding out the stocking cap to one member of each group, who would then blindly choose a story.

            She hit us third, and held the cap out to me. I wasn’t worried in the least. I jammed my hand into the cap, felt for the folded slip of paper that obviously had “earthquake” written on it, and pulled it out. Then, as everyone stared on fully expecting the same thing I was expecting, I unfolded the slip and looked down at it.

            “The Miltons Move to Fairbanks,” it read.

            I continued staring at it, dumbfounded. There’d clearly been some mistake. In fact, it was so obviously a mistake that I didn’t even bother reading the title aloud.

            Then the teacher took the slip from my hands, glanced at it, and announced to the class, “Group three will be doing ‘The Miltons Move to Fairbanks.’” Then she moved on to the next group as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

            I wanted to stop her, to jump from my seat to point out the mistake and replace the slip in the hat so I could grab the right one. But I found I couldn’t move.

            “The Miltons Move to Fairbanks”? What the fuck was that? Not only was it a story without earthquakes, it was a miserable and boring story I’d only half-read anyway. So an eight year old kid’s dad gets a new job and moves the family to Fairbanks. The kid doesn’t know anyone and it’s cold there. Boo fucking hoo. On top of everything else that was wrong here, how in the hell were we supposed to get a zip-bang poster out of drivel like that? There’s no drama, there’s no action or suspense. The little whiner’s sad and chilly. Not exactly inspirational poster material.

            I wanted to ask the others sitting in my group, “Okay, which one of you morons knows how to draw Fairbanks?” but I still couldn’t speak. That wasn’t all; something else was going on too. I couldn’t breathe.

            I tried a few more times, but nothing. I was feeling very warm, and it felt like an anaconda was constricting around my chest. Finally I wheezed out to the kid next to me, “I can’t breathe.”

            He got Mrs. Hansen’s attention, and she made the brilliant suggestion, “Breathe, Jimmy.”

            Oh, what do you think I’m trying to do, dumbass?

            When it finally dawned on her what was happening, she took my arm and led me to the back of the room, where she laid me out on the formica-topped counter next to the sink. Then she picked up the phone and called the main office. If you ask me, she seemed a little too calm about this whole thing. I was dying back there.

            As I lay on the counter, the constriction eased slightly—enough at least for me to finally squeeze some air into my lungs. Then a little more.

            As I slowly began to breathe again I looked back toward Mrs. Hansen, who was still passing the hat around as if there wasn’t a little kid near death on the back counter by the sink. I began to get suspicious. It was like she planned the whole thing. She knew what story I’d get from the beginning. There was no way she was going to let me have that earthquake story. And now she was trying to kill me. Where the hell were those paramedics, anyway? The fire station was right next to the school. I mean that—it was right next door. But somehow my mom got to the classroom before the paramedics did. What the hell’s the story there? That damn teacher probably didn’t even tell them I was dying. She wanted me out of the way because she knew I knew more about earthquakes than she did.

            Paramedics, hell—where were the cops? This was attempted murder we were talking about!

I opened my eyes when my mom put her hand on my forehead. I didn’t tell her Mrs. Hansen was trying to kill me. Not with the bitch still in the room, blocking our escape.

            The paramedics were apparently on a lunch break or in the middle of a card game or something, because they sauntered in twenty minutes later with a stretcher. They seemed about as concerned as Mrs. Hansen. What the hell was going on? Had she paid them off? This was an emergency! I wasn’t asthmatic. This had never happened to me before. I couldn’t fucking breathe, but these bozos were acting like a couple of plumbers called in to repair a dripping faucet.

            They eventually made their way to the back of the room, took my pulse and blood pressure, then slid me onto the stretcher.

            “What’s wrong with him?” my mom asked.

            “Dunno yet ma’am,” one of them said. “But if I had to make a guess I’d say he just hyperventilated. It’s no big deal. He’ll be fine.” Then he looked down at me. “So,” he asked, “do you want your arms inside the straps or outside the straps?”

            No big deal? I couldn’t breathe you fucking idiot! Let’s see it happen to you and hear you say it’s “no big deal.”

            “Um, in the straps, I guess.”

            While all this was happening, the bell announcing the first recess of the day rang, and everyone cleared out without giving the scene at the back a second look.

            “I know it’s a hot day,” one of the paramedics said, “but we have to put this blanket on you.” He never explained why—just flopped the heavy, scratchy green blanket across me.

A few minutes later they wheeled me outside, across the playground through 200 kids with kickballs and whiffle bats, toward the waiting truck. From my vantage point six inches above the ground, prone and helpless under the straps and the blanket, I stared up at all those curious, confused faces, wondering which one was going to kick me first.

Just as my mom somehow made it to the school before EMS, when we got to the hospital my dad was already waiting.

            An Asian doctor gave me the once over in the emergency room, said there was nothing wrong, that I’d just hyperventilated, and sent me on my way.

            I returned to school the next morning and didn’t say a word about the incident. I sat down with my group in Mrs. Hansen’s class and began working on a poster about some whiner in Fairbanks.

            At some point the kids working on the poster for the earthquake story came over and asked if I’d like to add my trademark crumbling letters to their project.

            “I’m kind of busy on this one right now,” I told them, “but it was nice of you to ask.” I wasn’t about to give that stupid Mrs. Hansen the satisfaction. That seemingly kind offer was probably part of her evil scheme, too.

            And for the record, the group who drew the earthquake story did a really lousy job.


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