Sunday, 13 April 2014

This is a happy place - Mat

Posted: Saturday, April 12, 2014 11:59 pm

This is a happy place

Pete LaFrance

Coming Home

Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman



There are some memories that occasionally float to the surface of my mind that are as battered, wrinkled and faded as the photos that accompany them.

Indeed, my mental souvenirs from the ’70s and ’80s are cloaked in either a sepia tone or the high-contrast black-and-white that matches the iconic family photos taken by my father on his old Pentax camera. It’s funny what one remembers years later after heaps of new experiences have been crammed somewhere in that network of neurons and glial cells and the brain has finished its sifting and consolidating process.

There are some memories of life in the Valley as a child that seem just too bizarre to be true. Sure, some of these are remnants of growing up in a big family in Alaska, like the time I was caught like a fish in the back of my parents’ station wagon by a brother eager to try out a new pole. But others indicate a more collective uniqueness that make me wonder deep down if they were really true, or if my brain has somehow constructed these oddities in a bizarre and pointless fit of madness.

For instance, when Carrs in Wasilla first opened, I have a memory of low-flying airplanes dropping ping-pong balls on the many people who had gathered in the parking lot below. My adult brain desperately wants to chalk this up as a fabrication, and my wife is inclined to as well, but I have confirmed the occurrence with others mystified by the oddity. I believe some of the balls had numbers written on them that corresponded with prizes, but at the time, after consulting with my serious-minded sibling committee, it was decided that we would simply capture as many balls as possible to take home intact.

This was before molded plastic abounded and the hopes of winning some abstract prize seemed a bit distant compared to the many concrete and valuable prizes bouncing across the parking lot. For some time afterwards our house was the epicenter of ping-pong ball research on the planet. Sports were invented, research projects were carried out, practical jokes were played and you could always count on someone to have a ping-pong ball crammed into the pocket of a tight pair of corduroy pants. I don’t know who the creative genius was at Carrs who came up with this as a grand opening tactic, but I send a long overdue thanks their way. I wouldn’t guess that this is an activity that is still commonly done, but that was a different time when folks carried less contempt for the ridiculous as long as some fun came along with it.

Then there is the Four Hour House. I recall crowds of people crammed into the fledgling subdivision across from Palmer High School to watch a house being built in an afternoon. I remember fighting our way through the mob to eventually watch the excitement from a small, temporary set of bleachers. My family was in the midst of building a house ourselves (to be clear, I mean my father was building a house and my mother was working equally as hard trying to keep the kids from “helping”) and I couldn’t understand what was taking “us” so long.

My small and less-than-powerful mind felt a little short-changed that this family would be in a new house before the sun went down while my path to a new bedroom was stretched out over years. When I recently investigated the Four Hour House to prove to my doubting wife that I was, in fact, not mad, I came across an article from the Montreal Gazette that not only confirmed the validity of my neural pathways, but also filled in some details. It turns out that the construction was a fundraiser for Valley Hospital with contractors donating materials and slapping the place together in a mere 3 hours, 53 minutes. In an impressive feat of logistics, 288 construction workers were involved in the project and the folks who moved in paid $80,000 for their home and minute of fame. It’s quite a nice story and the house appears to have fared well over the years. Sadly, faster houses have been built and Palmer’s Four Hour House no longer holds the record.

And there are plenty more of these peculiar homegrown gems mixed in the ol’ noggin among my haphazard catalogue of song lyrics, defunct phone numbers and some random chemical formulas. I’m happy to have them, to carry around these bits of the Valley in my mind to meditate on whenever I’m stuck in a meeting without an end or a point. So to my colleagues — if I seem to be enjoying a fundamentally distasteful situation more than any man should — it’s because I am busy living in a land where ping-pong balls fall from the sky and houses are built in four hours. And it is, indeed, a happy place to be.

Pete LaFrance grew up in Palmer and has moved back to the area after a number of years living abroad.

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