Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Spreading wings makes for turbulent teen years

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

At the beginning of the 1950s, the village of Kenai was poised on the edge of modern life. In 1948, the Alaska Road Commission had connected Kenai to the new Sterling Highway. And during the ’50s, a new school would be built, a military presence would be installed at Wildwood, the village population would double, oil would be discovered on the Swanson River field, and statehood would follow close behind.

Times were about to change, but for some of Kenai’s teenagers, like teenagers today, the changes may have seemed ponderous and slow.

Young Arlene Rheingans knew something of the world outside Kenai. In 1950, the 11-year-old Rheingans — who had spent the first nine years of her life in Hope after her parents, Ervin and Joyce, had left California in 1937 to seek their fortune mining for gold up Resurrection Creek — had read books and magazines and “Archie” comics, and she had listened intently to the stories of life Outside, stories sometimes as transient as their tellers.

But in Kenai, most of that exotic life elsewhere was simply something to dream about while making do with what one had: typically little or no electricity, little or no indoor plumbing, no telephones or televisions, no local doctor or dentist, and only about 300 other residents with whom to share this fate.

Rheingans was a loyal playmate with friends, was close to her parents, participated in school dramas and musical events, and was an active member of the Kenai Bible Chapel. Once she finished eighth grade at Kenai Territorial School, she found a best buddy in Jackie Benson, and the two of them began spending as much time together as possible. They even taught Sunday school together.

With the advent of her adolescence, however, came what Rheingans called a “mildly rebellious” streak. Some of that rebelliousness was aimed at the Kenai Chapel, which had strict prohibitions on smoking, drinking, playing cards, attending movies and wearing anything more than the lightest trace of makeup.

Rheingans began wearing some lipstick and mascara. When she and Benson had sleepovers, the two girls often crawled under the covers with a flashlight to read Max Shulman novels about the silliness and awkwardness of youth.

Then one day, on a trip to Anchorage with friends, Rheingans and Benson were left alone for a while, and they risked “surefire heck and darnation” to stop along Fourth Avenue and catch a movie —“Jumping Jacks,” starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

Emerging from the theater 90-some minutes later, their sides aching from laughing so hard, they decided to adopt for themselves the names of the film’s main characters. Benson became “Chick,” the Dean Martin character, and Rheingans became “Hap,” the Jerry Lewis character.

“Early the next day, the (Kenai Chapel) missionary’s wife arrived at our house to read me the riot act,” said Rheingans. “Seems she had been in Anchorage the day before, walking down Fourth Avenue, when who should she see coming out of the movie theater but her two Sunday school teachers.”

Ervin and Joyce, who was the Kenai postmaster, were far from pleased. Still, the girls were not finished with their rebellion.

Hap, who went to modeling school and changed her name to Lisa Marie Graham at age 17 before beginning a 50-year marriage to Tom Augustine just prior to her 19th birthday, said that she and Chick had read somewhere that “a person could get drunk by combining aspirin with Coca-Cola.” So they decided to give that a try, especially since neither aspirin nor soft drinks were prohibited by the Kenai Chapel.

In her memoir of life in Hope and Kenai, “The Dragline Kid,” Lisa Augustine wrote: “For our daring experiment, Chick and I bought a bottle of aspirin at Kenai Commercial and headed over to Mrs. Miller’s (soda fountain), where we ordered two bottles of Coke, ensconced ourselves in the back booth and set about crushing aspirin as best we could and funneling it into the bottles.

“We sipped hesitantly at first, sure that the concoction was going to take immediate effect, then, disillusioned but still a bit apprehensive, drained the drinks just as Louisa’s husband, Freddie, approached to ask with a frown, ‘You kids aren’t up to something, are you?’

“‘Uh, no,’ we blurted, and fled, leaving behind twin bottles coated with aspirin residue.

“The experiment didn’t make us drunk, but it probably did irreparable damage to our kidneys or livers or whatever. On the bright side, I never had a headache for the rest of high school, either.”

But even such a bitter defeat didn’t apply the brakes to Chick and Hap’s string of escapades.

“I suppose we were a little preoccupied with forbidden fruits just then, because not long after that (Coke) episode, we decided to get the whole Kenai Chapel Youth Fellowship tipsy,” Hap said.

Using connections to some of the Army soldiers being stationed nearby, they procured a half pint of vodka and spiked the fruit punch at the KYF Friday-night affair. The most affected person at refreshment time, however, appeared to have been “one of the female pillars of the church, who was acting as chaperone,” according to Hap.

She was “smacking her lips and pronouncing loudly, ‘This is the best punch I’ve ever tasted!’ as she poured her third glassful.”

In 1953, the girls were exposed to even more GIs when the Wildwood Army Station was established. Soldiers regularly came from the base to attend church services and other functions, drawing the eyes of teenage girls weary of the regular male faces around Kenai. Many of the soldiers, some of whom were still teenagers themselves, began dating the village girls.

Then, in the fall of that year, after a variety of such “dates” by both girls, Chick “escaped,” Hap said. She had graduated early from high school, and left for business school in Seattle. “Hap” without “Chick” became Arlene again.

In quick succession, much to her parents’ chagrin, she began dating Walter Hotchkiss, a young soldier from Georgia who was seven years older than herself; she joined the Civil Air Patrol and became a second lieutenant; and, in June of 1955, 12 days after her 16th birthday, she became Mrs. Walter Hotchkiss.

Nine months later, Walter decided he wanted to return to Georgia, and Arlene, who was not quite 17, accompanied him. Five months later, they were no longer together.

Still, the story has a happy ending. Arlene’s faith and her strong personality overcame the limitations of her youth. She learned poise and fashion sense in modeling school, and as the wife of Tom Augustine she had two daughters; stints in modeling, secretarial and volunteer work; and a chance to live in several places around the United States.

Currently, she and Tom live in the retirement community near Sacramento, Calif. She has written a book of humorous poetry entitled “Cheer Up it could be Verse,” and she has talked about, but not committed herself to, writing a second memoir that tells the “rest of the story.”

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