By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter
Jay Hammond was the fourth governor of Alaska, serving from 1974 until 1982. Many Alaskans consider him the father of the Alaska Permanent Fund. Even after he left office, his was easily one of the most popular, influential and important voices in Alaska history.
When I was about 12 years old, I vomited in the back seat of Hammond’s Bush plane.
Until recently, that embarrassment was my greatest brush with celebrity, with an individual famous enough to require no further explanation.
There have been a few other brushes over the years. About the same time as the puking incident, Denali winter climber Art Davidson, author of “Minus 148,” spent the night at my parents’ home. When I attended the University of Montana and was training as a journalist, I photographed Carroll O’Connor (Archie Bunker on the popular television sitcom “All in the Family”) and consumer advocate and presidential candidate Ralph Nader. As a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion, I photographed musher George Attla and Steve McAlpine, Alaska’s two-time lieutenant governor.
No knock against any of those folks, but they pale in comparison to my experience in Dillingham on Sept. 2, 2015, the day the president of the United States flew into town.
Back when my stomach was churning in Jay Hammond’s plane, I could never have envisioned the opportunity to photograph the president. Back then, my main concerns were comic books, playing outdoors and eating as much as possible.
Maybe the “as much as possible” tendency was part of the problem.
It was circa 1970. Hammond was a member of the Alaska Legislature and an active Bush pilot. My father arranged for me and my namesake, Clark Snell, to fly with Hammond to a remote lake across Cook Inlet for a day of fishing.
We were perhaps halfway to our destination when my breakfast began to alert me to the fact that it was dissatisfied with its current location and wished to be aired out in the back seat of the floatplane. I notified the pilot of my nausea, and he informed me that a saucepan under my seat could serve as an emergency receptacle.
I searched for and found said receptacle, and very promptly used it. When I asked Hammond what to do with the saucepan now that I had finished using it, he suggested sliding it, still upright, back under the seat until we landed. I followed his directions and began to feel better.
Lots of kids get motion sickness, and if that had been the end of my embarrassment, perhaps the long passage of years since might have erased, or at least significantly blurred, that memory. However, I also slipped on the rocks at the lake’s edge and soaked myself from the waist down. I can’t even remember now whether I caught any fish.
I’d like to say that I was so worldly at my young age that I recognized Hammond, sensed something special in him and hoped that one day his beliefs and ideas would have a profound impact on Alaska. But the truth is I didn’t even know his name until a few years later when he was elected governor.
Not so with the president.
Politically, I claim no allegiance to either of America’s main parties. I also understand that no president is ever going to fully meet my expectations or do all the things I would like to see done.
The world is too complex for any of us to always get our way. Every president performs contradictory acts, whether it’s threatening our civil rights in an attempt to provide more national security or creating a massive carbon footprint by traveling to far-flung places to promote awareness of climate change.
But when any president decides to come to rural Alaska, where I have spent my life, to promote environmental and economic causes and help preserve a way of life I have known for nearly six decades, I’m excited. Despite the security protocols and the incredible movement of personnel and supplies, despite the logistics, restrictions, tightly scripted movements and the obvious excess — I want to be part of the occasion.
Sometimes, events such as these don’t, by themselves, generate much change, but they can provide catalysts for change. Here in Bristol Bay, even a small amount of hope, especially against deep-pocketed monolithic mining interests, beats none at all.
So, when Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States, flew in a powder blue Boeing 757 to Dillingham, I was thrilled to be included as a member of the press pool. Although I never got to shake his hand (like some of my friends and neighbors), I was at the Dillingham Airport for his rainy arrival and departure. I rode in Press Van No. 2 as part of his motorcade. I scurried with the rest of the photographers, reporters and videographers to each of his venues while he was in town.
On a historic day that marked the first time a sitting president ever visited a Bush community (and later traveled north of the Arctic Circle), I shot 441 photographs, although I’d be a liar if I said more than 10 percent were worth keeping.
I’d also be less than honest if I said I smoothly handled my opportunity. (At least I didn’t vomit while being hurled around in the back of the press van, nor did I fall on my ass in the rain on Kanakanak Beach.)
I had waited until Sept. 1 to borrow better camera equipment for the occasion. My unfamiliarity with that equipment led to gaps in my image production as I fumbled with numb fingers over the digital controls. A local photographer graciously let me borrow a good lens-cleaning cloth, which I repeatedly used in the swirling miasma of mist and rain.
When we exchanged the hypothermic dampness of the beach for the warmth and relative aridity of the middle school gymnasium, the lens of my borrowed camera fogged and would not become unfogged, despite my panicked ministrations with the lens cloth. I couldn’t find the right settings on a second borrowed camera, and so I resorted temporarily to my trusty point-and-shoot, which drew a look of derision from a member of the D.C. press corps.
I show up in some photos taken in the gym. I’m staring fixedly down at my camera with a furrowed brow, as though nothing else important is occurring just a few dozen feet away.
Fortunately, The New York Times was not counting on me for its Page One image, although I did manage to acquit myself with some shots of which I’m proud.
I must also say that the city and residents of Dillingham did themselves proud. This may be a small, remote fishing community with piles of defunct automobiles and shipping containers scattered about, but Dillinghammers really united for this ultimate shindig.
The Bristol Bay Campus received last-minute landscaping. Grass was mowed and trimmed around homes and city structures. Flowerbeds were weeded and primped. American flags popped up all over the place. The ratty old VW van atop the blue Connex near Scandinavian Creek mysteriously disappeared.
Dillingham even enticed a brown bear to make several appearances at a salmon stream by the airport road and to endear itself to members of the presidential advance team. A day or two before the president himself arrived, a painted cardboard sign, held in place by white plastic zip ties, materialized on a railing above the creek. “Bearack Viewing Area” was printed above an image of a feeding bruin.
Some of us hoped the bear would show up when Obama did — just to see if the commander in
chief would halt his motorcade for a peek — but, sadly, Bearack had wandered elsewhere that afternoon.
We’d also ordered a week of bluebird skies, but, unfortunately, our solar subscription ran out a day early. Residents eager for a glimpse of the president had to stand along the roads in liquid sunshine and try their luck at capturing the moment with wet electronics.
I was thrilled by the mostly bipartisan cheering during the president’s time here. We don’t all have to agree politically in order to appreciate what a special occasion this was.
And I was particularly excited for the folks over at N&N Market. Just 14 months ago, the store was burglarized. Less than six months ago, it was forced to liquidate most of its inventory as its then-parent company departed under financial distress. Yet, on Sept. 2, the president of the United States visited the store, held a baby, high-fived a little boy, shook hands with employees and talked about economic development. Tough to get better PR than that.
For many people here in Dillingham, this was a brush with celebrity they’ll never forget.
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.