Feature Stories

Underneath the Cottonwood Tree – Part III

Roadhouse-3

Painting of Wasilla Roadhouse ran by the Hjellens. Painting by Gil’s older brother, Gerrit Hjellen.

When I left you last month my family was experiencing a terrible storm with 100 mile per hour winds, 30 to 40 below zero temperatures, no electricity, no oil for heat, the road closed, water frozen, my dad with multiple sclerosis was too cold to get out of bed and us six kids were wrapped up in our outdoor clothes since we only had heat from a small kitchen stove. The most difficult part was getting water for us and the animals as we had to melt snow. The kitchen stove was actually an oil stove but fortunately it had enough room in the top to put in some wood for a small fire.

It is said what doesn’t kill you builds you up,
but that was about all the character building
this little kid wanted.

And that’s when it happened, for the first and only time in my life I saw my mother start to cry, and then, to my amazement, she left us. She was the rock around which this family lived and suddenly she was gone. I did not know what to do and gloom pervaded the farm. That night, to our great relief, she returned after getting warm with hot soup at the Vickaryous farm down the road. We as a family had overcome many challenges, but this was the hardest one for me.

The cookstove the Hjellen family used to melt snow for water and to keep them from freezing during the big storm.

The cookstove the Hjellen family used to melt snow for water and to keep them from freezing during the big storm.

In a couple of days the winds let down, the temperature rose, and the road was reopened allowing us to get fuel oil delivered followed by the restoration of our electricity. It is said what doesn’t kill you builds you up, but that was about all the character building this little kid wanted.

In 1954 two momentous events took place. The first was the arrival of blacktop. The road was now paved all the way from Anchorage to Wasilla. For those of you who drive on dirt roads you can imagine the joy of riding on a smooth, dust and mud free road for the first time in your life. The second event was the arrival of television.

My first recollection regarding television was watching the Rose Bowl at the Wasilla Bar with my dad. Yes, kids went into bars in those days. I made up my mind about two things as I watched the football game. One, that I would buy a television set and two, that I would play the game of football. I had enough money to buy the television, but my other goal would be a little harder since they did not play football in Wasilla and I would have to earn a lot more to travel out of state to join a team.

I was as scared as I had ever been,
and well drained of blood,
when finally a liquor truck driver picked me up
and took me on his route to Valdez.

Gil in his football uniform in Port Townsend.

Gil in his football uniform in Port Townsend.

When we first got our television, during my freshman year of high school, my sisters, brothers and I were so excited we would sit and watch the test pattern. Programs did not start until about 5 p.m. and were over at 10 p.m. when we would all stand up for the Star-Spangled Banner. Since I bought the television I was King, but it was not that great since we only got one channel. I did however get my peanut butter sandwiches hand delivered.

At the end of my sophomore year, in 1956, I was still short on the money needed to fulfill my plan of going outside to school to play football. Since the other kids were old enough to take care of Mooseburger Farm and working for the valley farmers paid so little, I decided to hitchhike to Valdez and get work on a fishing boat. Lloyd and Anna Short, my uncle and aunt, owned a boarding house and bar there so I would have a place to stay. The hitchhike went well until I got to Glennallen and had to walk for hours late into the evening. The mosquitoes discovered a meal on the road. I was as scared as I had ever been, and well drained of blood, when finally a liquor truck driver picked me up and took me on his route to Valdez. Through this contact I was able to get my first job loading trucks on the dock.

My second job was working for the owner of a small store at the harbor who also had the garbage contract for Valdez. I ended up with the garbage truck duties which I did not mind until fishing season started. Everyone put their fish guts in the garbage and the smell and maggots were a little overwhelming. To this day I will not eat rice. I was unable to get on a fishing boat but I did get a third job cleaning and repairing machinery in the cannery. I got very little sleep that summer, but with three jobs I was making enough money to go to the states and become a football hero.

It was the biggest mistake of my young life
and to this day I feel the pain
of that missed opportunity.

That fall I headed for Port Townsend, Washington where I would room and board with the Corliss family, old friends of my parents from Anchorage. I called up the coach and told him I wanted to be his quarterback, but when I put on my shoulder pads backwards he suggested I try another position. It turned out that I really had a knack for the game and I did get to play as a running back and linebacker. My only problem at linebacker was the guard in front of me weighed over 300 pounds and when he stood up I could not see the field. I also played basketball and learned the jump-shot which was a new weapon just coming into vogue.

In the spring of 1957 my parents sold our farm and began operating the Wasilla Roadhouse, so at the end of the school year I returned home to help. The roadhouse was a lot more fun than farming and I even got my own bedroom for the first time in my life. I missed playing football in Port Townsend my senior year, but we had a top notch basketball team in Wasilla and I was having a great time playing point guard. The season went extremely well and we were favorites to win the state championship. Our first game was against a team we had beaten by over 30 points in the season so I decided to go out and party in Anchorage the night before, drinking and staying up late. You guessed it—we lost the game by one point and I played a terrible game. It was the biggest mistake of my young life and to this day I feel the pain of that missed opportunity.

My old cottonwood tree had been cut down
to make way for the new highway,
but the spirit of the old bicycle gang of boys
will always be there.

Some good did come from that life lesson as I went on to coach many teams. The players all heard the story and saw the pain in me, which helped them to avoid the same mistake in their athletic careers. Although one team did play a mean trick on me. One year the Wasilla High School girls were at my house in Anchorage during the state basketball tournament. I came into my living room and noticed everyone looking stricken. Hillarie Putnam, now a famous actress, and Ayla Brown came into the room crying. Their coach, Jeannie Hebert-Truax, was right behind them. Hillarie and Ayla said they had been caught drinking at a party and could not play. I began to try to console them but after a few minutes someone laughed and the joke was up. It was April Fool’s Day. The little brats went on to win the state championship.

After high school I had planned to join the military and see the world, however it turned out that because my natural father, Edward Lawson, had been killed in action in World War II, at the Battle of the Bulge, I could get financial help to go to college. So after working on the extra gang for the railroad that summer it was off to the University of Washington for me.

It would be almost twenty years before I returned to Wasilla. I was amazed as I went down the new highway, which went right through the middle of town, extending all the way to Fairbanks. Teeland’s store had been moved to a back lot and is now a restaurant. The Wasilla Bar and Roadhouse had been torn down. My family’s original house on Main Street had been burned down for firefighting practice and was replaced by a new library. Wasilla was becoming a city, yet you could still feel the hope of the old pioneers in the energy of the new people who made the valley their home. My old cottonwood tree had been cut down to make way for the new highway, but the spirit of the old bicycle gang of boys will always be there.

 

Story by Gil Hjellen

Categories: Feature Stories, History

2 replies »

  1. Privet(Hi) to yours from the other corner of this planet. Nice view, it seems like peacefull. This corner where I stay in these days, has got the electricity, food and full communication. But not peaceful, there is so many war, murder, pollution, terrorism etc. All you’re so lucky:) And one thing I have to say, I think you should add more tag your articles. In this way, the people can see your country beauty at least. хороший денек, good days:)

    Like

  2. I loved this series of what it was like growing up in the Matanuska Valley in the 40s and 50s. I’m looking forward to more in the future.

    Like

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