Chicken


OK, the Chicken, Alaska story. This has almost nothing to do with music, but in honor of my favorite band, Wussy, their album Strawberry and my favorite song on that album, here it goes:

April of 1993. I had finished up my residency in internal medicine at Emory in the summer of 1992, and I was asked to be chief resident of medicine for a year before starting my cardiology fellowship in Boston the summer of 1993. The Emory chief resident is based at Grady Memorial Hospital, an inner city hospital in downtown Atlanta that mostly cares for indigent patients, but the chief resident also oversees three other hospitals and literally hundreds of interns, residents, and medical students: It was (and remains) one of the biggest medicine training programs in the country.

There were a lot of great perks to the job, one being getting 4 club-level season tickets to see the Atlanta Braves. The Fulton-Dekalb Stadium, which is now a parking lot, was an easy walk from Grady. The tickets came via what is now an illegal mechanism but I got to watch almost every home game of a classic pennant race with the Giants right up close. But being chief resident was also hard work. I was on call around the clock and very literally in the hospital 7 days a week without break for the first 9 months.

I didn’t manage to get a vacation in for most of the year, but as my year drew to a close I decided to take 2 weeks off to visit my friend Steve in Alaska. I’ll need to introduce you to Steve. Steve was born and grew up in Macon Georgia, the home base of the Allman Brothers and Capricorn Records. His dad was a lawyer who sold used tractor trailers by the time I met him. To this day, Steve epitomizes to me all the best things about being “Country” and “Southern”. Steve is also full of boundless energy and curiosity— we really aren’t joking when we talk about him being hypomanic. Two important points: Steve knows more about baseball than anyone I know, and Steve knows more about country music than anyone I know. Uncanny encyclopedic knowledge.

Somehow Steve married a woman from Australia and they were in the middle of having their 5 children in 1993. Steve had finished up his residency a year ahead of me and did something really smart: He moved his family to Anchorage, Alaska and practiced general medicine there for 2 years before eventually doing a fellowship in gastroenterology and moving back to Georgia. So in the spring of 1993, Steve had been in Alaska almost a year, knew his way around a bit, and was developing road fever from the waning winter darkness. I was completely burned out from working nonstop at one of the busiest hospitals in the world. We both decided to take two weeks off together to drive around Alaska in Steve’s Jeep Wrangler. We mostly slept in the Jeep. We made lots of friends along the way. We did not always use good judgment.

Highlights of the trip include fishing for halibut off Ninilchik (where, at 2AM the night before we went out, we heard a sudden rushing sound in the creek that runs through town as we were leaving a bar, which turned out to be the very first salmon entering the creek to begin their run that spring); going further down the Kenai Peninsula to Homer Spit, where I bought the most remarked-upon trucker hat of my life; up to Talkeetna, from which we ascended to Ruth Glacier on Denali; stripping down for pictures at the Arctic circle road sign; and up through Fairbanks and toward Prudhoe Bay, getting stopped by a washed-out bridge in Coldfoot in the middle of the night and very nearly losing our lives at a truck stop full of drunken, stranded long-haulers.

But the story I’m going to tell you tonight began in Tok, Alaska. We arrived in Tok, which is over toward the eastern part of the state, in a late afternoon near the end of our journey. It’s a city of a couple of thousand folks, and I recall a totem in the middle of the street that commemorates the fact that Tok has the widest daily temperature swings of any city in the US. We were tired on the verge of being wiped out by this part of the trip and decided to get a room. The hotel was right across the street from the police station, and was literally two parallel mobile homes divided up into cubicles, with a walkway in between and a common bathroom at the far end. Being a step up from the Jeep, getting a room there— and a shower, a luxury during our trip— seemed like a good idea . . . at the time.

We got settled in and then found a place to get some dinner and beers. We heard music coming from a bar that had lots of cars out front, favorable omens. We walked into an unbelievable sight: A cover band was playing ‘70s classic rock in a segregated bar. Segregated in the sense that half the bar was Native American and half the bar was white, and it was easy to tell which half was Eskimo and which wasn’t. Being from where we were from, we knew this was a potentially volatile situation best handled with care, so we found a small table in the back and ordered fried chicken wings with extra hot sauce and cold beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon. It was dollar beer night for PBRs.

The band was playing all the songs that you’d expect them to play: “Can’t Get Enough”, “Radar Love”, like that. Imagine two rednecks like Steve and myself listening to a band play “Sweet Home Alabama” under those circumstances if you want to truly understand surreality as a going concern. As the beers kicked in, the band sounded better and the scene seemed more manageable, at least for Steve, who decided to walk up toward the bandstand to hear the music better. Steve can go very quickly from appearing very country and slightly wigged out to erudite and in control, sort of like the mental patients in the yacht scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and that’s what he did as he walked up toward the band. He stood up front, holding his beer and looking contemplative, like he was examining the Portinari alterpiece.

I hung back, my intuition for problems still nagging me. After a couple of songs, I saw that Steve was in the middle of an animated conversation. He was talking to a curly haired Eskimo woman who was overweight, looking early 30’s but probably mid-20s, wearing a grey sweatshirt with the neck cut out. After a second, I saw him wave his ring finger in front of her, bend over quickly in a slight bow, and walk straight back toward me. He slammed his PBR on the table and said “We gotta get out of here.” Not that he needed to say that to me by then. I threw two twenties on the table and we went back to the jeep.

Steve had been in enough tough jams to know how to avoid a bad situation, and I was glad we were both alert to the tension and dodged that bullet. It was around midnight when we left, but there was still some light out, so we decided to do some fishing before going to bed. We found a stream a couple of hundred yards down the road and spent a half hour fishing for small trout that we caught and released. We headed back to our hotel room once the mosquitos found us and crawled into the two cots along each wall of our room. It was pretty cold by then so we used our down jackets as blankets.

It was extra easy to go to sleep stretched out in luxury rather than in the passenger seat of the Jeep, and I’m sure I was deeply in REM when there was a blast of sound—bang bang bang followed by a bleeting sheep-like sound. This repeated several times— bang bang bang bleeeeet— before we both realized that the banging was on the door of our room and the bleet was actually someone yelling “Steve!” in a very high voice. Steve jumped out of bed in his tighty wighties— I slept in my blue jeans— and tilted his head down slightly looking over at me, his “This is serious” look. We were both disoriented, trying to figure out what could possibly be going on. Given Steve’s glare, I figured I needed to sort it out, so I went over to the door and peered through the peep hole. There stood the Eskimo woman who’s passions Steve had thwarted several hours earlier, yelling at the top of her lungs and clutching something that looked like it just might be a small child. I explained this to Steve in as much detail as I could muster: “It’s her.”

So Steve, being the clever one, motioned me to stand behind the door, which he slowly cracked open. I guess he was planning to talk his way out of this. Neither of us expected what happened next: The door slammed open and she was suddenly standing in our dinky hotel room, screaming at the top of her lungs “Steve!” She was holding between her hands, in the middle of her chest, a rectangular white object. As I regained my orientation, I slowly realized that she was holding. . . a five-pound bag of flour.

I’m not sure whether the bag of flour registered in my brain before or after the explosion. But what I do know now, with the benefit of hindsight, is that the curly haired Eskimo detonated the flour in our hotel room, and then split before Steve and I were sure we were still alive.

So the situation is this: A bag of flour has exploded in the mobile home cubicle that we have rented for the night. The roar of the explosion has awakened everyone else in the hotel, most of whom appear to be drunk, drugged out, and extremely pissed. They, and the guy who rented us the room— either the owner or the manager, or maybe both— are standing outside the door of our room. And everything inside our room, including ourselves, is covered in a fine white powder that rises like smoke off of every surface.

I don’t recall Steve or I saying anything. I’m not sure what there would have been to say. I do remember looking out the tiny window of our room and seeing a mustachioed overweight police officer with a two-gun holster walking across the street. Almost immediately he was in the mobile home and I realized that he was wearing sunglasses at some ungodly early hour of the morning. He was asking us who we were. We were two rednecks covered head to toe in bleached all-purpose flour— isn’t that obvious?

No good was going to come out of the situation, although I guess it wasn’t apparent that we had broken any serious laws either, so we and all of our dusty clothes and sundries were thrown out of the hotel after we settled up our bill (cash only). I remember the flour boogers that were building up in my nose as I looked out the back of the Jeep while we drove off. Flour was crusting up everywhere on our bodies as we sweat despite the temperature. We were too shocked to realize how miserable we felt. It didn’t even occur to us to wonder how we looked. We drove down the road a few miles, wiping the flour out of our eyes and noses and mouths with our hands, and pulled over to the side to sleep, wake up, and pray that this situation was all just a nightmare.

The sun didn’t really come up, it just hovered over the horizon, but eventually we woke. We were still covered in flour, but now it had spread throughout the inside of the Jeep, fine white particles everywhere that had dispersed as we slept. But on our clothes and bodies, the flour was caked in hardening ridges, like flecks of plaster. Steve had raccoon eyes where he has rubbed the flour out of his orbits, and the flour was matted up in blotches all over his face. It made him look sickly and somehow emaciated, even though he has never been a slim guy. I imagine I looked just as bad or worse, but I couldn’t tell and didn’t want to know.

We got out of the Jeep and walked around in a dazed sort of way. As we got our orientation, we realized that we parked about 200 yards from a service station in the middle of nowhere in Alaska that had been invisible to us given the darkness and the flour. Somehow this was the most improbable aspect of our entire fiasco. For lack of a better idea, we got back into the jeep and pulled up to the pump. At the very least, we figured we would need lots of gasoline to sort out our situation.

We sat at the pump without moving. It seemed like a long time, but it was probably only a few minutes. But I remember this guy with his hand above his eyes, peering in from the driver’s side window, looking at us. Keep in mind that flour dust was coating everything within the car at this point so what is inside the car is hazy from every perspective. We should get out and explain things, I thought.

In retrospect, we could only have looked like aliens. Steve had on an armless down jacket without anything under it, not even a t-shirt, and he’d pulled on hunting pants over his skivvies but he didn’t have shoes on. I was still in my dust-covered jeans, dust-covered t-shirt (Jane’s Addiction, Ritual de lo Habitual), and also no shoes.

We got out and did some explaining to a guy Steve and I might have known all our lives. He’s 50+ (or maybe 40+, it’s hard to tell up there), beer-bellied with silver hair that was greasy and neither long nor cut recently, and several days worth of facial hair. He was wearing a wife-beater t-shirt, dirty worn out jeans, and duck boots. He had a handgun in a holster under his right arm. He told us he knew that something was the matter when he woke up because his goats were restless, and he’d been keeping an eye on our Jeep since early in the morning. We tried our best to explain what had happened that night, but I don’t think it made a lot of sense. However, our new friend warmed up to us and eventually invited us to shower behind the service station. “Leave them billie goats alone” he said.

We got ourselves cleaned up and got the flour debris out of the car as best we could. We asked the guy where we were. “Chicken, Alaska”. Which consisted of his house, the service station, and nothing else. I asked him where the name came from. He said the town was named after the state bird. There was a pregnant pause, and then Steve said “The Alaska state bird is the ptarmigan.” And the wife-beater t-shirt guy said “Couldn’t spell ptarmigan.” Got it. Chicken. And off we went.