Military memoir gives likeable look at Alaska

Posted: Thursday, January 22, 2004

Cheechakos. Alaskans apply that term to those new neighbors whose car went in the ditch the first day it snowed and to those blue-haired tourists who back up traffic with their land yachts.

But, as author Sean Michael Flynn points out, the U.S. military ships thousands of outsiders to the Last Frontier and not all of them come willingly.

Behind the guarded gates of bases, men and women populate low-visibility communities bigger than many Alaska towns.

Flynn, from a military family, joined the Air Force in 1994. His journalism background earned him a post as a public affairs officer. After a brief stint in Mississippi failed to impress him, he volunteered for a job at Eielson Air Force Base between Fairbanks and Delta Junction. Later he learned he was the only applicant.

"I could barely wait to touch Alaskan soil," he writes. "All I had read about the place, all I had heard from people who had been there, and all I knew from watching 'Northern Exposure' convinced me that I was heading to someplace more amazing and quirky and dangerous and beautiful than any other in the world."

In "Land of the Radioactive Midnight Sun," he chronicles his first year in Alaska with wit and candor. He arrived nave but enthusiastic, determined to become a real Alaska man.

"Despite the proliferation of modern conveniences on the Last Frontier, cheechakos like me still have a lot to worry about," he says in his introduction.

"Every year scores of newcomers fall victim to animal attacks, car wrecks, hiking accidents and just plain stupidity. After one week in Alaska I hoped I wouldn't be next. I wanted to graduate from the status of cheechako to that of Alaskan overnight, but the half million or so people who currently held the title 'Alaskan' were not likely to bestow the honor upon me for just showing up."

Flynn arrived in December. It was dark. It was cold. Really cold. He compared breathing the arctic air to swallowing lye. He lamented the slim pickings for eligible women near the base. But he found the aurora borealis dazzling.

He sought his vision of the Alaska life, but found himself initially in an apartment in North Pole:

"It was fun to live in North Pole. I was able to mail all my Christmas packages in December with the North Pole postmark. When ordering over the phone, it was after stating my proper address of Santa Claus Lane, North Pole, Alaska, that I was usually hung up on. It was fun, but as I contemplated the reindeer petting zoo and giant candy canes, I realized I would never find the real Alaska at this North Pole."

Month by month, Flynn's book shares the adventures, misadventures, studies and epiphanies that gradually taught him the essence of being Alaskan. Sure, there is the question of residents' dubious sanity.

But he also learned about the state's culture of self-sufficiency, mutual support and common sense.

Flynn was wise in his upbeat attitude and willingness to try things. He watched the UAF Nanooks play hockey and went to a summer solstice party. He participated in ice rugby, mushing, gold panning and sport fishing.

The last included a trip to the Kenai River: "In July, when every local yokel and beer-gutted fisherman from the Lower 48 descends on one of the sleepy little towns like Soldotna, the ensuing jousting and body-checking for a good fishing spot would bring a hockey player to tears," he writes.

Along the way, he expressed concern for his position in the hierarchy of manliness.

As a serviceman, the Alaska women saw him as a peripheral short-timer but tourists saw him as an unexotic faux-Alaskan. And among the military women and others he found himself, as a self-described public relations nerd, competing against glamorous fighter pilots. As he put it, he had the bad haircut without the cool jacket.

Flynn does a great job explaining his job as an Air Force flak. His mission was to go to downtown Fairbanks and pitch stories to the local press. In the larger scheme of things, he saw this as part of educating the American public to rally their support for the military. And in case of a disaster, such as a plane crash during training maneuvers, he was in the front line to tell the public what was really happening.

Much of his job, however, entailed serving as a buffer between irate civilians and decision-makers higher in the command chain. Duties included fielding calls from Alaskans griping about noisy fly-overs during the summer Cope Thunder international training exercises. One complainant asked, "Who do I shoot for breaking all the windows in my


Now retired from service, Flynn is candid about his disputes with the brass. They censored his humor column in the base newsletter (requesting that he stick to "happy Air Force things") and, in a shameful incident, tried to brush off Athabaskan villagers' concerns about a radioactive power source at a remote sensor station by calling the strontium 90 "magic rocks."

He also offers fair critiques of Alaska residents, pegging them as litterbugs and singling out alcohol's toll as the most depressing thing he encountered in the state.

Most of the book is folksy and funny, although Flynn is sobering when he talks about the sacrifices made by military men and women. Despite his sometimes sarcastic and cynical observations, he conveys nothing but respect for the men and women in uniform and affection for Alaskans.

"Land of the Radioactive Midnight Sun" is a fresh look at Alaska and an enjoyable tale. This is a book Alaskans and outsiders both will find informative and entertaining.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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