NORTH TO ALASKA

By Bob Schwabach

First published in the Philadelphia Daily News July 11, 1985

A guy I met told me visiting Alaska was the trip of a lifetime.  I hadn’t thought of it that way.  The trip of a lifetime, I thought, should be someplace incredibly exotic –like Timbuktu, or Kashmir. Alaska, after all,  is one of the 50 states. But the guy was right: It is the trip of a lifetime.

You can fly to Alaska. Easy. You can drive. Not so easy. But the best way is by boat –up the Pacific inland waterway. A thousand miles of gliding between dark forested mountains that have never known the step of man. Whales and porpoises swim up to the ship, curious, unafraid. Bears come down to the water’s edge to catch fish. Moose stop grazing to look. The sea is as still as a pond.

Before we disembark

A 10-day tour by ship costs about $1,200-$2,200 per person, depending on cabin size and location. Not as bad as it first appears, really, since it includes your room, entertainment and all meals. Sometimes you can get discounted tickets just before a ship sails. Ships leave from San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver. There are several lines: Norwegian, Holland/American, Cunard, Carnival, etc.

The young and adventurous can take passage on a mail boast if they’re willing to sleep on deck and bring sandwiches. Not many people know about these. They leave every couple of days from San Francisco and Seattle, and the price is very cheap —$40 or so, depending on how far you’re going.

Ketchikan

First port heading north. It is cold, gray and wet.

It does not snow much in Ketchikan, but it rains all the time. The playgrounds of the public school yards are all paved; otherwise the children would be playing in mud. They are roofed too.

The town is built so steeply into a mountainside that part of the main street is on stilts. There are streams all over, and salmon swim through town on their way to spawn.

Ketchikan has 9,000 people, or so the atlas says. There is a drugstore and a movie theater. There is no way in or out except by boat or seaplane. It is Alaska’s fourth-largest city.

Skagway

There is no place quite like this one, and perhaps there never has been.

Skagway was the gateway to the Yukon Territory during the gold rush at the turn of the century. Fortune hunters and adventurers from half the world arrived here by boat and began the walk to Whitehorse and Dawson City, 500 miles to the north. It was the easiest way in.

By 1890, Skagway had a population of 20-30,000 — no one is quite sure. By all accounts every rip-roaring, free-swinging, saloon and dance-hall town you ever saw in the movies was nothing compared to this place. Author Jack London said it was the hardest, toughest, most lawless place on the continent, which was really saying something at the time.

The town is at the northern end of a hundred-mile-long fjord. It has about 700 people year-round, though that swells to almost a thousand in the summertime. They paved the main street last year, a source of much local pride. The sidewalks are still wood.

In the Red Onion Saloon in the center of Skagway the only patrons were two men about the size of trees and one of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen. One man was in a full body cast. He had just gotten out of the hospital, it turned out, mauled by a grizzly bear. He was walking in the woods near his house when he saw the bear. The bear saw him too.

At first the bear didn’t do anything. Then it charged. Bears are very territorial and this was the bear’s territory. The man ran then and climbed a tree, because no matter how big you are, you are not as big as a grizzly bear.

Climbing the tree turned out to be a mistake. The bear reached up and with one paw brushed him out like a bug, and he landed 20 feet away in a creek bed, with a broken leg and shoulder. The bear came and stood over him then, and after looking at the man for a minute, took his head in its jaws and bit, fracturing his skull in several places.  Then the bear shook itself and walked away.

The man the size of a tree explained all this the way you or I would talk about a traffic accident– just a kind of mishap, you might say, on the way down to the grocery store.

Anchorage

Half the people in the state live here. There is a Hilton, owned by Walter Hickel, the former governor and U.S. secretary of the interior.

The most interesting thing about Anchorage is the suburb of Hope, about three miles away across an inlet cut by a glacier. That three miles is all quicksand. To get to Anchorage from Hope you have to drive around the glacier, about 200 miles.

Fairbanks

The interior. Even when it’s warm, it’s cold in Fairbanks.

The most interesting thing about Fairbanks was watching a construction crew putting in sewer lines for a new housing project. They blast the trenches out with dynamite. This is the permafrost; digging is out of the question.

Denali

The Indian name for what we used to call Mount McKinley, at more than 20,000 feet the highest point in the North America. Denali means “the big one.” The park is 5.7 million acres.

Dawn and a cold wind blowing off the mountain. Fifty to sixty bighorn sheep grazing part-way up the side. Though they are only about a mile away, that mile is almost straight up, and it would take all day to reach them. About a hundred yards away, a grizzly is eating some berries off a bush.

The clouds part and the sun lights up a valley covered with tundra
grass and ringed by low peaks. It is totally desolate and incredibly beautiful. An eagle takes flight from a crag a quarter mile away. You can hear the beat of its wings.

Juneau

The capital. In  his book about Alaska, “Going to Extremes,” Joe McGinniss writes that Juneau is so mind-numbingly boring that lawmakers regularly snort cocaine in the caucus rooms when the Legislature is in session. I believe it.

You can walk the whole city in a couple of hours. Take a bus and you can cover the suburbs in 20 minutes. The bus line ends at the Mendenhall Glacier. If you stand there you will hear sounds like distant cannon fire. It is the ice cracking as the glacier moves.

It is June and nearly 60 degrees in downtown Juneau, so warm that several young ladies have taken advantage of the heat wave to dress in shorts and halter tops. No one else considers this odd. Nothing is considered odd. In the Ace Hardware store downtown they sell Uzi submachine guns in the sporting goods department.

Juneau is built against the side of a 2,000-foot cliff. It is beautiful almost beyond belief.

Alaska is a state of mind, the locals like to tell you. They refer to all the other states simply as “outside.”

They also believe that it is the last stronghold of rugged individualism and rugged individuals. They are wrong. But they are right about one thing: There is a sign in the Alaska State Division of Tourism office, and it says: “Once you’ve gone to Alaska, you never come all the way back.”

LEAPING LIZARDS! WHO LET THE DRAGON OUT?

By Bob Schwabach

First published in the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday “Today” magazine, July 26, 1981

They ran blindly, the corridor behind them stretching  into darkness, their torches throwing flickering shadows against the dank walls. At last the sounds of pursuit faded in the distance, and they stopped to catch their breaths, hoping that the torchlight could not be seen by enemies.

They were hopelessly lost now; there had been too many twists and turns in their wild dash for safety. It was a miracle they had managed to stay together: Cugel the Clever, Thed the Cleric and Baldar the Baleful. Behind them, they knew, a band of troglodytes –large lizard men with crocodile jaws and a yen to kill anything that resembled a human — would be sniffing out their trail. And no matter how faint that trail might become, eventually the troglodytes would find and follow it. With no food and only one day’s supply of water, things looked grim. In desperation, the fugitives turned to the dungeon master for help. Continue reading

CEREAL PREMIUMS BIG BUSINESS…REMEMBER THE YUKON LAND RUSH?

By Bob Schwabach

First published in the Delaware News Journal, June 28, 1972

Big Inch Land Company Deed, from Quaker Oats

Remember the Big Inch Land Co.? Well think about it, because chances are you do.

The Big Inch Land Co. left all other real estate operations in the dust, so to speak, when it sold 21 million — that’s right, 21 million — parcels of Yukon Territory land in the spring of 1955. Of course, each one of those parcels was only one inch square, but still…

The deed to one square inch of gold rush country was a cereal box premium — perhaps the most imaginative ever presented, in a business that runs to pretty wild imagination –of the Quaker Oats Co. in Chicago.

Breakfast munching fans of Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, the company-sponsored radio show, could spoon up their Puffed Rice while savoring a full mouthful of enjoyment over the knowledge they were now landholders in the territory trod by the brave sergeant and his trusty mutt, King. To the attentive eye, the little puffies floating in the milk had the look of heavy ice breaking up on the Yukon River. Mush, you huskies!

The premium gimmick is a big business. Maybe you thought it all went out of fashion shortly after you sent in 10 cents and a box top and got your secret Captain Midnight glow-in-the-dark, decoder ring, with the hidden compartment. Don’t you believe it!

Though the premium game ebbs and flows with the tide of corporate marketing attitudes it always comes back, because it works. A good premium, cereal executives say, will move the boxes off the shelves and into bowls faster than any other promotion. Some express private doubts the customer will stay with the brand after the promotion ends, however.

Rice Krispies Puppet

Still, if the competition does it you have to do it too. And so we all have become familiar with any number of plastic boats, hand puppets, coloring books, fit-together cut-outs and cartoon strips on the back of the box, a kind of premium in itself.

“Nothing in the world has the readership of a cereal box,” says Chick Hanson, a public relations man at General Mills. “Unless maybe it’s a catsup bottle.”

General Mills seems to hold to more proven attention-getters for premiums, like dolls (always popular), model cars and trucks and model planes. It’s house brand leader, Cheerios, was perhaps the company’s biggest winner with a choice mail-in offer of a Johnny Lightning car or a Dawn Doll recently. It may not seem like much to the big folks but the kids literally eat it up.

Some premiums are mail-ins and some are in-pack. The in-pack ones, are of course, free with the purchase of the cereal. The mail-ins can be either box tops with money, just box tops, or rarely, just money.

Cereal executives all say that premiums are designed to be self liquidating. By that they mean that the cost of the premium to the consumer should just equal the cost to the company of buying and distributing it. There is no attempt to make a profit on premiums. The business is to sell cereal, not toys.

Not all premiums are toys. All the cereal companies have offered pots and pans, silverware, dishes, towels and other homebody-type goods for the adult market. Premiums of this type were more frequent in the early years of this century, when all this premium stuff pretty much got under way.

The Kellogg Co., which has the brand leader of them all, Corn Flakes, still devotes considerable attention to adult premiums.

Kelloggs offers such mail-in inducements as rose bushes and seed packets along with in-pack items like spools of thread, button packages and, a few years ago, nylon stockings.

Snap, Crackle and Pop hand puppets, with Kellogg’s Rice Krispies brand, were popular for years.

More recently, trading cards have been used with several Kellogg brands. Made to order for cartophiliacs and other arctic Magellans, full sets are now sold for $25 to $50.

It’s not done much now, but many premiums used to be tied in with radio shows. Kellogg’s first boxtop offer was in the ’30s when they mailed out sheet music from the Kellogg Singing Lady, Irene Wicker. Along with “golden oldies,’ Kellogg also sponsored Superman.

The company went into premiums back in 1914, with merchants handing out Funny Jungle Land Picture Books over the counter with each purchase.

Lone Ranger Secret Portfolio

General Mills had several radio shows, of which one, the Lone Ranger, will probably live forever. The company’s Wheaties brand still brings unbidden memories of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. A couple of box tops and some loose change would get you Jack Armstrong’s pedometer, with which you could log the miles you walked each day.

Quaker Oats started offering premiums around the turn of the century. The first one, a fortune-telling calendar, in 14 colors, could be had in 1901 for a Quaker Oats label and five cents in stamps.

In the 1920’s, the company offered a premium which overshadowed even the Yukon land deal in popularity. By mailing in a box top and a couple of quarters, the customer got parts and instruction for converting the round Quaker Oats box into a crystal radio set that really worked. The demand went on for years.

Some premiums are selected by the marketing and advertising men, but there is an increasing trend in the cereal industry for premiums culled from the myriads presented each year by manufacturers. Toymakers and novelty companies bring in plastic gimcracks and other novelties by the dozens.

Not unnaturally, some premiums have become collectors items.

Cereal companies are continually pestered with requests for long-discontinued or defunct premiums, especially those having a tie-in with radio shows. Few of these requests are rewarded since, in most instances,  the companies no longer have the premiums.

Some collectors resort to sob-stories in their requests. A parent, for instance, will claim that a sick child wants just one thing; a wife will write that her husband is completely distraught about a single gap in his collection.

Quaker Oats, nearly 20 years after the Big Inch Land premium rush, still gets requests from deed holders wanting to know if their mineral rights are protected. (There are no mineral rights.) They want to know the names of other holders so they can buy, bargain or steal more parcels. (With 21 million owners, Quakers Oats doesn’t keep any mailing list.)

Back in 1955, the company received a letter from a man who had assembled 10,800 deeds. Having built this monument to triviality through a research and negotiation effort whose immensity can scarcely be grasped, the man wanted to know if the parcels were contiguous and when he could take possession.

The Big Inch Land Co. idea was born of Bruce Baker, a marketing man no longer with Quaker Oats, who was told the company wanted some kind of premium to tie in with their Sgt. Preston of the Yukon show, one that would cost no more than 3 cents a package to buy and distribute.

Baker had the company buy, sight unseen, a 19.11-acre plot along the Yukon River, 12 miles north of Dawson City, for $10,000.

After it had been worked out that 21 million one-inch parcels could be cut from the land, the company decided someone ought to go up there and look at it, talk to the territorial assessor and maybe take some pictures to prove the land was there.

A half dozen Quaker Oats executives made the trip, spending the first few days in Dawson City trying to convince an extremely skeptical territorial assessor he should issue 21 million valid deeds. Every deed had to have a legal easement so those behind the first row of inches could get to their territory without a range war.

When it came time to visit the property, the men learned there was no road and the only access was by boat up the Yukon. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police offered to guide them.

They were taken up river in a small skiff operated by the largest Mountie in the world, a strong, silent type who was a great fan of Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. The mountie had a huskie named –you guessed it–King.

They went up river, and down, in November, with the ice just forming. Everybody but the Mountie was dressed in Brooks Brothers Executive Obligatory and none, except he, had brought an overcoat. Their supplies dwindled down to one candy bar. The boat was swamped in the rapids twice.

“Say, how long do you think a man would last in this water?” one of the executives asked the Mountie. “You, about 32 seconds. Me, eight minutes,” was the reply.

“Woof,” said King.

The camera mechanism froze in the cold. They shared the candy bar. It took six hours to get back to Dawson City.

On the way back from Dawson City, their car broke down and they waited until nightfall before another vehicle came along. It was the last oil truck coming down the road for that year and it picked them up and took them to Whitehorse, 300 miles away. From there they made it back from Chicago as if they’d been shot from guns.

“Mush, you huskies. On King, on.”

A VERY SERIOUS ‘ENEMIES’ PARTY? OR RADICALLY CHIC…

By Bob Schwabach

First published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, August 17, 1973

NEW YORK– Sometime later in the evening  Jimmy Breslin is sitting on the bottom step that leads to the basement room of Jimmy’s at 33 W. 52nd Street in New York and is taking a nap with his head resting against the railing. A party is in progress, a New Year Party.

Jimmy Breslin

Suddenly, Breslin snaps his head up and says to somebody he knows who is walking by, “You’re crazy. What do you mean by inviting all these papers here. They’re going to make it out into some kind of dilettante thing like ‘radical chic.’ It shudda been completely private — no press.” The guy shakes his head and walks away. “It wasn’t any of my doing,” he says.

Now this is a very interesting thing for Breslin to say. Because this party, a classic New York party, is for the people who were named on the White House list of enemies, which was made public in the press last month, and is ostensibly being given to honor investigative reporting and to hand out the first of a series of annual awards for same.

Richard Nixon

The White House enemies list was a great thing for some people. Because while everybody there is a liberal and strongly anti-Nixon, everybody else there already knows that everybody there is a liberal and no shakos are being distributed for this distinction. The great thing about being one of those named on the list is that it made them a certified enemy; quite literally the government had affixed its stamp of approval to their liberalism, like USDA prime. Continue reading

WHAT’S A NICE GIRL LIKE YOU DOING IN A BALLET CLASS?

By Bob Schwabach

Originally pubished in the Philadelphia Inquirer, March 25, 1973

They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but nobody even cracked a smile when I went to the ballet practice barre.

Maybe that’s because the social cloud has lifted, a lot of men are taking ballet lessons these days. Ah, Diaghilev, thou shouldst be living now — at least it beats your present position.

IN BALLET, it seems, you start out from the fifth position. I have no idea what happened to the first four positions but that’s the way it is. Maybe it’s because I was late for class. Continue reading

FRESHMAN ORIENTATION: THE LIBRARY

Harper Library, University of Chicago

I really love libraries. And I think librarians are a useful invention. I would like to make that all clear at the outset. Because the following little true tale from college days should serve as a warning to all who labor in the stacks and are thereby infused with the implacable desire to inform the world of the awesome splendor of it all.

On the first day of orientation week for entering students at the University of Chicago, 400 of us were gathered into the Mitchell Hall auditorium to bend a heedful ear as several speakers would step to the stage and outline the various departements of the university for us. First by right, and justly so, was the head librarian, a small balding man of about 40. He was commander-in-chief of Harper Library, an impressive edifice housing among its 2,713,000 volumes such intriguing works as “An Analysis of Tertiary Creep in Rotating Copper Discs” and “A General Symposium on Utter Depravity.”

After a few introductory remarks he referred to the number of volumes under his command and then paused about three months to note the effect on his audience. This apparently failing to satisfy he went on.

“If all the book shelves presently holding books in Harper LIbrary,” I remember him saying, “were laid end to end they would stretch from the university  to Racine, Wis.” Pause for effect. He then told us that if all the volumes were laid end to end, discounting reference works, they would stretch to — I believe it was the capitol of Springfield. Continue reading

DOWN ON THE FARM

By Robert Schwabach

Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer July 29, 1973

Quarryville, PA. – On the high branches, birds call. And in the yard, puppies romp. Up on the slopes, the tassels of the tall corn are moved by soft breezes. From somewhere down in the dell, the cattle are lowing — or whatever it is cattle do.

Farmer Groff is plying his trade. Raising milk.

He raises it by pumping it out of the swollen udders of cows — registered Holsteins. Sixty of them. Forego the visions of bright metal pails, three-legged milk stools and the patient pulling of teats. He does it with a Surge Electrobrain Vacumaster, which sucks the cows dry automatically and delivers the milk through glass tubes into a refrigerated stainless steel vat. Untouched by human hands. Continue reading