Fleas, Refrigerators and Fur Fish

Alaskan humor at its best

On April 1, 1987, an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 had a mid-air collision with a fish. That’s right, a fish. Alaskans did more than a double-take—and a double-read—because, after all, it happened on April Fool’s Day. Did it really happen? Yes, as a matter of fact, it really did happen. An eagle with its talons full of fish was flying across the Juneau airport runway as the 737 was taking off. When it was clear that the eagle-and-fish combination was not going to avoid a collision, the eagle released the fish and there was a fish-airplane mid-air collision. The eagle flew away and, according to the Anchorage Daily News, the “fish, species unknown, was presumed dead.”

If you live in Alaska, a sense of humor is required. Jokes about Alaskans, on Alaskans and by Alaskans are as common as bear stories. After all, we have salmon so large they have to be transported individually strapped to trucks, clams which require the services of a flatbed and fish that grow fur—and we have the photographs to prove it! And we have tourists who come north looking for penguins, igloos and want to be here on June 21st, the day our six months of 24-hour a day darkness instantly turns to 24-hour a day daylight. We welcome those tourists because they spend about $100 a day in Alaska and, thankfully, are all gone by Labor Day.

Alaskans are not the only ones to profit from our uniqueness. A good example of an outsider who mined Alaska for profit was Jim Moran, a Hollywood publicist and prankster. Active from the 1930s to the 1960s, he made a name for himself by publicizing outrageous stunts that drew attention to himself and his clients. In February of 1939, he spent 82.5 hours looking through a haystack for a needle. In January of 1940, he led a bull through a China shop and in June of 1946, he sat on an ostrich egg for 19 days to hatch it. He is probably best remembered for his (failed) April of 1951 stunt to advertise a candy bar by having midgets hold pictures of the candy while they were aloft strapped on kites over Central Park in New York. He claimed that this publicity would not only increase candy bar sales but, at the same time, provide gainful employment for “out-of-work midgets.” The New York police did not see it that way and refused to let him perform the stunt. Moran was outraged. “It’s a sad day for American capitalism,” he lamented, “when a man can’t fly a midget on a kite over Central Park.”

In August of 1938, Moran was walking down a street in New York when he heard a salesman remark that a job had been “as hard as selling an icebox to an Eskimo.” Eskimos do buy iceboxes—the 1930s term for a refrigerator because it was actually a box in which you put large chunks of ice—and Moran saw cash in the expression. He immediately went to NBC and convinced them to advance him $300 for a trip to Alaska—about $10,000 in today’s dollars. He then convinced the National Association of Ice Advertisers that selling an icebox to an Eskimo would be great for advertising. They agreed and gave him an icebox and guaranteed him $2,500 if he could sell the icebox to an Eskimo—about $100,000 in today’s dollars.

Moran made it as far as Juneau where he found an Eskimo who spoke no English. Charlie Pastolik bought the icebox for “$100, two fox furs and a piece of ivory.” But that wasn’t the end of Moran’s Alaskan adventure. In addition to his broadcasts on NBC, he hacked 300 pounds of “Arctic ice” from the Mendenhall Glacier—which was quite a feat since the Arctic Circle was 1,000 miles to the north—and collected two fleas from the back of Pastolik’s husky which he secreted in a matchbox. From Juneau he went directly to Hollywood where he pitched Paramount Pictures on using the fleas in a movie. These weren’t just regular fleas, he told Paramount executives, they were Alaskan fleas. They were snow-blind and would thus be unaffected by the harsh klieg lights on the studio sets.

Then he went further. “They are trained Alaskan fleas,” he continued. “Most Eskimo have nothing to do during the long winters [so they] spend months training fleas. The best fleas are Eskimo fleas as anybody in the flea business knows.” Paramount saw green in the fleas and paid Moran $750—about $30,000 in today’s dollars—to get Claudette Colbert to allow the fleas to crawl up her back in her next movie. That went nowhere with Colbert who did not see any value in having a pair of fleas, Alaskan or otherwise, crawl up her bare back. But the photo of her with Moran and the Alaskan fleas was published which, to Paramount, was worth the $750 spent.

But Moran wasn’t through. He sold ten pounds of the alleged-to-be “Arctic glacier ice” to Dorothy Lamour’s press agent for $500—about $20,000 in today’s dollars—and garnered press coverage for the “oldest, coldest, slickest ice in existence.” He sold the rest of the ice to the National Association of Ice Advertiser—even though they had already paid him for the stunt—who placed a chunk of it in their window with a placard stating it was from the same glacier as the ice that had been purchased by Dorothy Lamour.

To this day in Alaska, the expression, “as hard as selling an icebox to an Eskimo” is worth an ethnic chuckle because Eskimos do buy refrigerators. But this has not slowed the use of the expression. Postcard humorist and entrepreneur Tom Sadowksi used the concept on one of his infamous cards. Sadwoski’s other cards include a man stretched out on the pavement of a highway with the tagline “On the Road to Tok” and young lawyers trying to pass the Alaska Bar—this Alaska Bar being a saloon.

Aside from Alaskan fleas, ice worm harvests and fur fish, Alaska is a land where truth is often more humorous than fiction. Proof of that are the following:

In May of 1950, a funeral in Palmer had to be delayed because a moose had fallen into the open grave. A tow truck had to be used to lift the moose out.

In 1990, the Talkeetna Moose Dropping Festival organizers received an outraged call from an animal activist group that wanted to know from how high the moose were dropped. Without missing a beat the organizers replied “about 300 feet (pause) but we drop them on cement.”

In the late 1970s, a hunter in Skagway shot a moose out of season. As he was coming into the harbor, he spotted the game warden and, rather than be captured with the evidence, he strapped weights onto the moose’s ankles and gave the corpse the heave-ho over the rail of the boat. The moose lay on the bottom for a while and then, as the innards began to deteriorate, the moose rose to a standing position. There it was discovered by a skin-diving architectural engineer who had gone down to check the dock’s footing and suddenly found himself face-to-face with a full grown moose in 60 feet of water. After the story was reported around town, the moose was referred to as “Bloatwinkle.”

Quoting directly from the August 10, 1953 Fairbanks Daily News Miner

“Despite the fact that Alaska has no snakes roaming anywhere in its vast territory, a woman was treated at St. Joseph’s Hospital during the early hours Sunday morning for a snake bite on her hand. The precedent-shattering incident occurred when Kay Starr, an entertainer at the Club Flamingo on South Cushman Street, was bitten by a 140-pound boa constrictor she uses in her nightclub act.”

Steven Levi is an Alaskan humorist. You can read more of his strange, true and humorous Alaskana in his Kindle book WELCOME TO ALASKA, NOW GO HOME!”

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