Brennan: Journey of a lifetime

By Tom Brennan

Fifty years ago today my wife and I were nearing the end of the journey of a lifetime. We were in Montana and headed north toward the southern end of the Alaska Highway.

We had left Massachusetts on July 5, driven south to visit my folks in Hampton, Virginia, and then taken a scenic route westward across the country. I was driving a four-wheel drive International Travelall and we were towing a houseboat on wheels — a contraption that had no springs. The wheels hung down beneath it when it was in the water.

I had a job waiting at The Anchorage Times. My bride Marnie and I had both been reporters at The Worcester Telegram in Massachusetts and decided to take a look at Alaska before we settled down. The Times then had a policy against hiring both husbands and wives but they dropped that policy as soon as they met Marnie. She became The Times ombudsman columnist.

The Alaska Highway turned out to be an incredible journey of its own. At that time it included 1,200 miles of unpaved road from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to the Alaska border at Tok. There was little traffic on the highway, which was a good thing since it was a very dusty drive. And since our houseboat had no springs it shook unmercifully and rattled our entire rig — the car, our teeth and everything else.

When we stopped for our first rest on the Alaska Highway I started to climb into the houseboat to make myself a sandwich. Marnie stopped me and said: “You might want to stay outside and eat lunch under a tree.”

Oh, oh. I climbed into the houseboat and found that the highway shaking had knocked every drawer out of the cabinets, dumping all of our belongings on the floor; a jar of honey had broken in a cabinet and was seeping down the wall, and a bag of flour had burst on the floor. I had a case of beer stored on the floor of the houseboat; it had shaken so much that all the beer squirted out under the bottle caps. And everything was covered with dust.

Because of the shaking we couldn’t drive faster than 15 miles an hour. We wound up spending eight days on the Alaska Highway. By the time we reached Tok we were two weary travelers.

We settled the boat at a trailer park in Anchorage and I reported for work at The Anchorage Times on August 7, 1967. When I found my way into the newsroom on the paper’s Fourth Avenue office I must have looked confused. “Can I help you,” one reporter asked, identifying himself as Bob Miller. I explained that I was the new guy from Massachusetts and was looking for Bill Tobin, the managing editor. Bob pointed to Bill Tobin’s office and said: “Welcome to Alaska.” Bob is still a close friend today though he has been living in Colorado for years.

(Bill Tobin later became a close friend as well, especially after he hired me to be an editor and columnist at The Voice of The Times in 2000. That was a dream retirement job so I couldn’t resist. I had to take a pay cut to accept it, but I quickly laid off all my public relations clients (at that time I was running an agency) and signed on to work with Bill Tobin, Paul Jenkins and Jan Singyke at the VOT.)

In December of 1967, The Times’ oil beat reporter, Ot Hampton, wrote a small piece saying that bush pilots were reporting that Richfield Oil Corp. was flaring gas at its drill site at the mouth of the Sagavanirktok River on Alaska’s North Slope. A few months later the company announced that the well had made a major discovery in a well named Prudhoe Bay State Number 1, which had tapped the largest oil field ever discovered in North America.

That proved to be the well that opened a brand new future for Alaska. And a few months after that the company announced that it was going to build an 800-mile-long pipeline, 48 inches in diameter, from Prudhoe Bay to a terminal to be built in Valdez.

Since the pipeline was to be built across hundreds of miles of wilderness, the environmental community came unglued and launched a campaign to block construction of the pipeline. Ultimately they lost and construction began in 1974. The pipeline started up on June 20, 1977 and the first oil reached Valdez on July 28, 40 years ago last Friday.

By that time I was launched on another career, in public relations. ARCO’s Alaska division then reported to the company’s office in Dallas, Texas, which was four time zones away from Anchorage. The four-hour time difference and the huge cultural gap made it difficult for the company to manage its public relations from Dallas.

I was hired to be public relations manager and had a staff that included Mike Webb as community relations director, and Rebecca Parker as public relations representative. Mike later went to work for the state and Becky is now general manager of the Anchorage Senior Activity Center. I’ve lost track of Mike Webb but Becky is still one of our closest friends. I am a member of her board of directors.

The last 50 years have been a very exciting time for Marnie and I. Besides having adventure-filled careers, and my writing five books, we raised two fine sons and have four grandchildren, three boys and a beautiful girl.

We knew when we left Massachusetts that we were beginning a grand adventure. Alaska has proved to be just that and I’m very glad we came.

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