New York, Mexico and Alaska all sound like fun places to travel to, but it wasn’t so simple for Ron Khoury, who, as a young man, joined the U.S. Military as a dental technician, and found himself with chattering teeth instead of smiling.
Khoury quite inadvertently experienced the “Land of the Midnight Sun” when it was still a territory and not yet a state. “Law and order were at a minimum; you could pan for gold; and after 50-below-zero temperatures during the dark of winter I had to then learn how to function in the summer when the sun never set,” he recounts.
Of course Khoury never expected to be in Alaska so he was physically and mentally unprepared for the journey. He’d presumed, by joining the United States Air Force in 1953, he would get up into the wild blue yonder – but he was startled when, after serving six months at Mitchell Air Force Base on Long Island, he received his orders.
“Alaska?” he asked, incredulously, when his colonel taunted Khoury by delivering the news that he won’t be flying to Japan with two others in his unit. Khoury, instead, would be one of the “frozen chosen.”
South of the Border Before North to Alaska
Khoury’s parents, in Michigan, decided they’d like to drive their son out to Camp Stoneman, in California, where Khoury was due to report to, and ship out from in two weeks.
“My father had been looking at maps and suggested a route that would take us down to Monterey, Mexico and back up into California,” Khoury recalls. “I got stuck doing most of the driving and when we crossed the border all we saw was sand, cactus, adobe huts, burros, and jackrabbits until we got to Monterey where there were a million bicycles and people cooking in the streets.”
Khoury recalls driving his parents out of Monterey and up to California along a narrow, winding mountain road. “My mother looked out the side window at the valley 1,000 feet below and was constantly telling me to drive farther from the edge. My dad was no help as he had discovered tequila and spent most of the time passed out in the back seat. His excuse was he was not supposed to drink the water.”
Khoury said between the driving and his parents he was a nervous wreck when he finally reached Camp Stoneman, where, after four days of booster shots, he was directed to board a ferry in San Francisco Bay. The ninety-minute, rock and rolling ride took him and other G.I.’s to a troop ship he describes as a “typical tub” for the trip up the Pacific Coast to Ladd Air Force Base in Fairbanks, Alaska via Anchorage.
“Really we were all quite enthused because many of us had never been on the ocean before and it was a beautiful, sunny day when we sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge. But when the coastline slipped away and the rolling of the ship became very noticeable, many of the airmen started doubling over with seasickness. The sight and sound of this then had a ‘snowball effect’ on the others,” he recalls with, to this day, an involuntary grimace and a grab of his stomach.
From the High Seas to Low Temperatures
Khoury and the troops, sleeping on canvas cots, were happy to see land and get ashore, but what they found in Alaska was hardly a warm welcome. Instead he was slapped with bitter weather. “New arrivals were scheduled for ‘Overnight Survival’ training during which we were marched out into the Alaskan wilderness and made to sleep in tents. Our sleeping bags were shaped like the inside of a mummy’s coffin. Some guys stayed up all night by the fire because they were afraid they’d freeze to death like a ready-made mummy,” he recalls.
On nights the airmen stayed inside there wasn’t much to do but play cards or listen to “Gunsmoke” serials on the radio, so Khoury jumped at the chance to do a little sightseeing when some locals offered to take him to Fairbanks for what they called “nightlife.”
“The place was a tar paper shack with a hard-packed soil floor and bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The bar was a long plank nailed to the top of wooden barrels,” he says. “It was a rough crowd so I drank half a beer and got out of there.”
Summer’s Thaw Brought Wilderness Adventure
Summer brought the “Midnight Sun” and by the time it melted the ice in June Khoury was ready to explore the Alaska beckoning from beyond the frozen tundra. He and his now warmer, but sleep-deprived friends, fished the crystal clear Tanganyika River near Mt. McKinley for trout. “There weren’t any snakes or spiders but the mosquitoes made up for them. They were big and hungry and came in swarms.” The fishermen’s reward for their endurance, though, was the surprise of being able to skim valuable gold flakes right out of the still-icy river.
Late in the summer Khoury’s adventure continued when instead of just fishing or hunting birds and rabbits, he joined friends who’d secured a single-engine seaplane to drop them off in the wilds for four days of moose hunting. “It was an eerie feeling watching that plane disappear and hearing the silence close in. You can hear silence – it’s spooky,” Khoury insists. “All kinds of weird things started going through my mind like ‘What if a grizzly bear attacked me?’ for instance.”
A grizzly bear didn’t get Khoury (nor did he get a moose), but when the seaplane returned four days later, he did make it out of the remote wilderness – but only barely. “The small lake was only about 200 yards long and the four-seat plane was heavy.
On the pilot’s third takeoff attempt he finally got us into the air but we were so low I could feel the vibration of the floats on the bottom of the plane hitting the shrubs and bushes as the pilot tried to get enough lift off the end of the lake to clear them. I thought sure we were going to crash and die.”
On a weekend hiking trip to chaperone 100 Boy Scouts deep into the forest near the base of Mount McKinley, Khoury and his crew came across a film crew from Disney Studios. “They were hoping to get footage of grizzly bears for a movie they were producing. They asked if we’d seen any,” Khoury recalls. “I told them we hadn’t and we sure hoped we wouldn’t since there wasn’t a single gun between us!”
Khoury’s, now retired in Michigan, has hand-typed a memoir – “The Junior Sourdoughs” – which he is hoping to get published. It includes plenty of traveling characters including his smelly-footed roommate “Pancho;” “Ace” Armstrong; and…bedbugs – the bane of any traveler. There were laughs, tears, romantic dalliances and wild fights…plus a somber return trip to Michigan after Khoury’s service in Alaska ended the way it began – unexpectedly.
Contact Travel Writer Michael Patrick Shiels at [email protected]