If you’ve read my book ‘SLEETMUTE’ (a couple of bucks on Amazon and other booksellers…with pictures) then you know the following: I had just (1968) graduated from Pratt with a degree in Industrial Design and applied to VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) and stated on the application that I wanted to ‘serve’ in Hawaii (I didn’t use that punctuation of course). I was accepted and assigned, you guessed it, to the very remote, very small, very rough Eskimo village of Sleetmute, Alaska. To my complete surprise, many in my volunteer group wanted to go to Alaska, in fact, for them it was a dream come true. They all saw Alaska, not as a State,but as a religion. The Vista ‘trainers’ were surprised that I had wanted to go to Hawaii, but the US Government being what it was said the best they could do was that, if I stuck out my year in Alaska, and did well, they’d transfer me to Hawaii. It was as good a deal as I was going to get so I agreed.
You’ll have to read the book to see how a Brooklyn Jew survived the winter in the village of Sleetmute, Alaska. Just as a taste, the nearest road was 300 miles away, no electricity, no phones, no streets, no law. If you wanted to eat you had to hunt. My partner got his ribs broken in a drunken misunderstanding and left before the winter set in (and he was known as the ‘friendly’ Vista). 100 Eskimos (about 50 adults and 50 kids) and me. And while we arrived in Sleetmute in the summer, the winter, at more than 50 below zero and dark all day was…well you can read about that…or not..up to you.
You also have to understand that I really had no idea how I was supposed to ‘help’ the Eskimos and the plain truth was if it wasn’t for them helping me survive I would have died. But I tried. And after the winter ‘broke’, Jim Holton, my ‘Area Supervisor’ was gonna fly in to see what I had ‘accomplished’. Now, I was sure that I had done nothing except survive (a big plus as far as I was concerned) but I figured I was doomed. Not only that, he was supposed to stay for a day and when the weather turned bad, no plane, he was with me for a whole week. Oh fuck. I took him around to every cabin and we sat and had tea and ‘talked story’. Still I thought I had really done nothing all year in terms of Vista’s mythical ‘community development’ and when Jim eventually flew off he seemed happy but I just figured that was because he was finally getting out of Sleetmute.
(A note: If you do happen to go on to Amazon’s SLEETMUTE page,
there’s a review of my book by Jim Holton. How we hooked up decades after Alaska is another tale but he told me stories of some of the other volunteers in my group actually having total mental and physical breakdowns because of the brutal conditions, and I don’t necessarily mean just the weather)
The upshot of all this is that Jim thought I had done a great job (I’m still surprised) but I was truly amazed when they offered me the promotion of Area Supervisor for next year in Alaska if I wanted to stay on. Unbelieveable. But of course I didn’t, I was promised Hawaii and a promise is a promise. Or so I thought.
The next section is from my book:
I’m waiting in my hotel room. A VISTA supervisor, Jack Prebis, is coming over to talk to me about my transfer to Hawaii. Wow! It’s really happening. Jack arrives. We’re sitting on the beds facing each other. “Stan”, he says, “this has nothing to do with you personally…” Every sensory cell in my body is alerted. This probably ONLY has to do with me personally. He continued. “I know VISTA made some promises to you but the reason you can’t go to Hawaii is that we need people there with special talents…they need a photographer, an industrial designer, an…..” Now when Jack said the words “can’t go to Hawaii” my mind buckled. Jack was not talking to the kid they had sent to Sleetmute a year ago. He was talking to the Eskimo in me. I was mad. Eskimo mad. This was fuckin’ government’s gussach lies, I thought. If I had my gun I might have shot him…just as a warning. But when he said the reason I wasn’t going was because they needed an ‘industrial designer’, I cracked. I stood up while he was talking. (he stopped). I walked over to my army duffel bag and began emptying it, like an animal, throwing my possessions all over the room. Jack watched this display in silence. I just had to make sure. It had been a long year after all. Finally I found it – at the bottom. It was the very first thing I had packed because it was the last thing I thought I would ever need in Alaska. My diploma. I opened the little leather folio. I read it. I WAS an industrial designer.
I walked back over to Jack, holding the diploma up in the palm of my hand and held it up for him to read. Then with all the fury in my heart I pushed it hard into his face. Hard. He quickly left the room.
I’m left sitting on the bed fuming but crushed by this turn of events when I hear laughing. Peeking in from the next room was Roger, another Vista Administrator, and he’s actually laughing at this whole scene. I was ready to kill him with my bare hands but he approached me with his palms outstretched to calm me.
“Look – I saw the whole thing and I just gotta tell you a story.” You can imagine that I was in NO mood for a story, but he continued. “Do you know who Ken Kesey is?” I nodded I did. Confused. “Well a couple of years ago Kesey and me worked together at the Oregon State Psychiatric Hospital. We were both orderlies. Ken was there to do research for a book that he was writing called ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. I was there because I really needed the job. Kesey would secretly change patient’s prescriptions and generally screw things up just to see what would happen. I kept warning him that sooner or later they’d catch him. He just laughed.”
I still had no idea what this story was about or what it had to do with me, but Roger had my interest.
One day Kesey got called into the office. They told him that they knew what he’d been doing and threatened him with jail before they fired him. As they were escorting him out of the building he yells to me, laughing ‘They fired my ass!’ ‘I told you they were gonna get you,’ I said. ‘Oh-yea,’ Kesey says, ‘and by the way they said they wanna see you next.' I got canned too. Just for being Kesey’s friend. I’m bewildered. Roger looks me straight in the eye and continued. “Look, you’re right about this whole Hawaii thing but it doesn’t matter. You’ve only got one chance to get what you deserve and that’s to sit down, right now, and write the best letter that you’ve ever written, about what’s just happened to you, and send it to everyone important you know”. I was stunned. Three days. I worked nonstop on the letter for three days. After Sleetmute, words, especially written words, came hard. They looked so permanent. And they were so important. Three days. I sent it off. To Jack, to his boss, to the heads of VISTA Alaska and VISTA Hawaii, to the Governor of Alaska, the Senators and Representatives of my home state of New York and Alaska and Hawaii and finally to the President of the United States.
Several days went by. Then I got a call from VISTA Headquarters. I remember it well. “Stan! Stan! Good News! We’ve cleared everything up over here and guess what – You’re gonna go to Hawaii! Yea! That’s Great! Just what we all wanted! And hey Stan, just do us one favor OK? Yea..Well.. Uh..Just don’t write any more letters OK"? “Sure” I said.
On August 20, 1970 I landed in Honolulu, Hawaii. It was paradise.
ALOHA To be continued: