September 18, 2007
While I was doing my book-signing at the Tanana Valley Farmer’s Market in Fairbanks in July, a young woman approached with a copy of Touching the Ancient One in her hands. Almost shyly, Libby Martin asked me to autograph the book. We chatted about a couple of mundane things, then she said, “I must warn you—I review books for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, and I’m reviewing your book.”
There’s an old saying that “there’s no such thing as a bad review.” Still, I wondered what she might say. After returning home, I looked up some of her other reviews and could see that she was tough, but fair. I was pleasantly surprised when the review appeared in the Sunday, August 19 Daily News-Miner.
Freelance writer, Libby Martin, reviews books for the newspaper under the column name, The Armchair Adventurer. She gave permission to share this review:
'Ancient One' a powerful story of survival, healing
Alaska’s history is littered with aviation tragedies. According to the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the commercial aviation accident rate in Alaska is four times that of other states. And with a long list of well-known names lost in plane crashes – including Carl Ben Eielson’s disappearance in 1929, Wiley Post and humorist Will Rogers in 1935, William Huatala’s death in 1943 and U.S. Reps. Nick Begich of Alaska and Hale Boggs of Louisiana in 1972 - stories of gravity’s victory over man’s attempt to soar are numerous.
But Rupert Pratt’s memoir, “Touching the Ancient One: A True Story of Tragedy and Reunion,” is a story of a different type. As the title suggests, the book isn’t just about the crash, although that compelling story is the first half of the book. The story is really about Pratt and the men who survived a tragic accident – and how they reconnected years later. It’s not so much a tragedy as a tale of survival and strength.
Rupert Pratt grew up in Salt Rock, WV, a rural area in the Appalachian Mountains. He joined the Army at age 20, because “in the early fifties, entering the military was almost a certainty for a healthy young man.” He was assigned to Ladd Air Force Base in 1953 for a two-year stint.
On his arrival, however, he and his buddies Ed Knapp and Don McDonough were assigned to drive oil and gas rigs, a dirty, smelly job that was far from the glamour Pratt had envisioned.
Pratt writes of his introduction to the Fairbanks cold, disillusionment with his assignment and his personal story of loves lost and found. It’s a meandering journey, first here, then there, throwing in an explanation as almost an after thought. It’s not the chronological, 1-2-3 order most of us expect when reading history, but it’s more real, as if we’re sitting down face-to-face with Pratt as he tells us stories about his life. The back story is also necessary to help us understand how he ended up on a C-47 that ill-fated day, and, like any real life journey, begins long before the actual event, with fits and starts along the way.
Pratt and his buddies were “loaned” to the Army’s petroleum lab in Ft. Richardson, TDY for up to three months. They landed in Anchorage in November 1953; they were recalled back to Ladd on Feb. 3, 1954.
Pratt was told their loan to the Army was over; he was to notify Knapp and McDonough and be on a flight back to Fairbanks by Feb. 5.
So it was that Pratt got himself and his friends on that unfortunate C-47 out of Elmendorf, finding himself plummeting to earth when the plane broke up over Denali National [State] Park and his subsequent landing on Kesugi Ridge.
Sixteen men boarded that flight. Six men survived the explosion, break-up and parachute-fall to the ground.
Such is Pratt’s writing skill that even though you know – you KNOW – that only six men walk away from the downed craft, the reader hopes along with the author for the safety of all of them. Pratt has tapped deeply into 40-year-old memories, bringing the reader vividly close to the experience. I felt the cold wind rushing through me as I fell from the plane, earned bruises from landing on unforgiving rock and waved frantically at an unseen plane flying overhead, hoping I would be seen.
But this book is not a mere survival tale. Pratt finishes out the first half by detailing his reaction after returning to Fairbanks – too much booze, time and what we would these days call post-traumatic stress. But he pulled himself together, finished his military time, married his sweetheart and got on with his life.
Until 40 years later, when he began wondering about the other five survivors and the families of those who hadn’t survived. With the aid of his letters home (saved by his mom), newspaper clippings and a database with all the residential telephone numbers in the U.S., Pratt began with the five men who had shared the mountain with him.
It was slow going, but eventually, Pratt found them. The story of his search is as compelling as the tale of the crash, because he is honest about the emotions dragged up from the wells of memory. He worried that the others wouldn’t want to remember the crash, and that the families of those who didn’t survive were resentful of those who had.
“The reunion idea just popped out,” he writes early in the chapter. “I guess the idea had occurred to me before, but I hadn’t given it much thought. Now it seemed the most logical thing in the world.”
And the others thought so too.
Eventually, Pratt found family members who were willing to talk about their lost loved ones – indeed, the forward to this half of the book was written by Keith Betscher, who was 20 months old when his father piloted his last flight.
Pratt writes vivid biographies of both the survivors and the victims, using information he garnered from family members, survivors’ stories and newspaper clippings. He speaks with wonder at the interest the reunions picked up – newspaper articles, a film documentary, and calls from families. Eventually, the survivors plan a trip to Kesugi Ridge, thus closing out a chapter in their lives that colored everything they did.
August 10, 2007
This took a little longer than I'd thought it would. Thanks for waiting. Calling our Alaska trip a “book-signing tour” might be overstating it a bit since Millie and I would have returned even if there was no book. Alaska is in my blood and I believe Millie is infected as well. That’s not a bad thing at all, except that the long flights to and from “America’s last frontier” seem to get harder each time. The fact that we’re willing to endure such discomfort says something about our desire to be there. Anyway, I’m calling our trip a “book-signing tour,” and I’ll tell you about that; I’ll also tell you other things about the trip, making it sort of a travel guide within the story.
On Thursday, July 12, after a two-hour Delta flight from Albany to Cincinnati and another seven-hour flight to Anchorage, we picked up our rental car and drove the short distance (1-2 miles) to Lake Hood Inn, the same accommodations we had in 2004. This time we were to stay two nights before heading out to other places. Owner Bill Floyd had left us a note. He was out somewhere but would be back soon. We settled in, watching the floatplanes taking off and landing on the lake. It seems like every home or building around the shoreline has a floatplane tied up beside it. Bill soon returned and we spent some time catching up on the past three years. At ten-thirty, we hit the sack, having to pull shades against the still-bright sun.
July 29, 2007
Millie and I have just returned from Alaska with 326 photographs, new and reinvigorated friendships, and some jet lag. As soon as I recover from the latter I’ll share the trip with you through pictures (Don't worry, there will be considerably less than 326) and words.
The two-week trip was primarily a vacation since we had not visited America’s Last Frontier since 2004, but we also took advantage of the time to promote Touching the Ancient One. Six book-signings later, I possess wonderful memories of those events. I look forward to sharing our latest “Alaska story” with you. Watch for it in a few days.
July 3, 2007
A local search feature has been added to this website. You can find Search Website near the top in the sidebar.
June 26, 2007
Sadly, circumstances have led to the cancellation of the C-47 Survivor’s Reunion scheduled for Elkader, Iowa this summer. We are hopful that the event can be rescheduled next summer. For more details you can click here to download a PDF file of the latest C-47 Survivor’s Sentinel.
You can now order Portrait of a Legend: Talkeetna's Cliff Hudson directly from Stagg Films. Click on the cover image here or on the one in the sidebar.
June 4, 2007
On June 1, Stagg Films held a premier of the Cliff Hudson DVD, Portrait of a Legend: Talkeetna's Cliff Hudson. The showing was in Talkeetna, Alaska. Ollie Hudson sent me a message saying that it was well-attended and well-received. Ollie also sent two photographs that I have placed in the Miscellaneous folder in the Gallery Pictures link in the sidebar. One is below:
Ollie went on to say, “When the part of the presentation of the medal that was given to Cliff [was shown] everyone clapped. They had laughs & all enjoyed & bought DVDs & T-Shirts.” That's Ollie in the front row with an empty seat on either side.
If I had three wishes about the event, the first would be that Cliff could have been there; the second would be that Millie and I could have been there; the third I’m still working on.
June 2, 2007
There’s a DVD being released soon that visitors to this site will definitely want to see. Stagg Films is releasing Portrait of a Legend: Talkeetna's Cliff Hudson. I’ve seen an advance copy of the biography and it’s a great tribute to this extraordinary Alaskan bush pilot, not only for his flying skills, but for the esteem in which he is held for his qualities as a man and for being a good neighbor to thousands. Readers of my book, Touching the Ancient One, will know that Cliff Hudson was the pilot who found the wreckage of our downed C-47 back in 1954, putting himself in harm’s way to do so.
Anyone who “Goggles” Cliff’s name will see right away that much has been written about him, but Tom Stagg’s movie documentary fills a void long overdue. I’ll be saying more about the movie after its release. For now, you can see the Stagg Films website which has a trailer of the DVD.
Today I read an article on the Internet about a Kansas City bookstore owner who seems to be systematically burning his inventory of used books. Book burning is not a new thing, of course, but is most often the result of extreme religious or political fervor. In this case, it seems to be by one who presumably has great respect for the written word. The AP article by David Twiddy states that the burnings are to “draw attention in protest of what he [the bookstore owner] sees as society's diminishing support for the printed word.” While I agree with the sentiment, I think the action is extreme.
I believe there are many places across the country that would very much like to receive those used books. Today, being Memorial Day, I’m thinking in particular of veteran’s hospitals and homes. I’ve donated several copies of Touching the Ancient One to those organizations and was rewarded by their gratitude. We may not be able to rescue those Kansas City books (although some are trying,) but we can perform a service to our elder service men and women by our own rescue of books and then seeing that they get into the right hands.
I’d bet there are several locations in your community to place your new or “rescued” books, but in case you’d rather just use the mail, here’s an address suggested by The Military Writers Society of America:
NW LA War Veterans Home
Attn: Tameka Dees, Library Director
3130 Arthur Ray Teague Pkwy
Bossier City, LA 71112
May 23, 2007
I value friendship highly, and it hurts when friends die. It seems to be happening to me more and more, and I guess that’s to be expected when one reaches a certain age. It’s especially hard, however, when your oldest friend goes.
Among my very earliest memories is one of Ed (Eddie) Harbour and I playing in a sawdust pile across the road from my house. We took turns licking Ed’s Black Cow sucker. A dusty road separated our Salt Rock, West Virginia homes by a scant hundred yards. We were together daily. No phone calls (we didn’t have any phones then,) we just showed up on each other’s doorstep.
That’s Ed with the dark collar near the center of this Salt Rock Church group. Yes, that’s me at the lower left. Circa 1938.
It was that way all our young lives except for a couple of years during World War II when my family was away. We had adventures galore—foolish dangerous things sometimes, but mostly just fun. Ed built a big sled with a little house on it. One winter day when a light snow barely covered the landscape, we dragged the heavy sled to the top of a hill. I chickened, but Ed crawled inside and I obediently gave him a shove. The sled picked up speed and sailed far past the spot we had imagined it might go. It crashed through a barbed wire fence and down into a creek, breaking through the ice on a three-foot deep pool of water. With heart pounding, both from chasing the runaway sled and from unimaginable fear, I managed to pull Ed from the house, which was broken apart in several places. He was soaking wet, but unhurt. That was only one of our many excellent adventures.
We played football together at Barboursville High School, enduring some hardships to do so. Salt Rock was eleven difficult miles from Barboursville, and although a bus took us to school, we had to hitchhike home after practice. We were both linemen and seldom got to touch the ball. Before the last game in our senior year (1950,) Ed was lamenting the fact that he’d never made a touchdown. Our team was not a great one (by a long shot) and we were playing St Albans, a pretty good team. During the first half St. Albans fumbled and Ed grabbed the ball. I threw three blocks on the way to the goal line and Ed had his touchdown. We led 25–0 at the half. We lost the game by one touchdown.
We went separate ways after high school. I went to Marshall. Ed married Rachel Midkiff, then went into the army and eventually to Korea. I went into the Air Force. We wrote letters for awhile. Later, we’d see each other at school reunions and get together occasionally, but most often years would pass before we’d see each other. Thankfully, we’ve been much closer the past few years. Millie and I try to get to West Virginia at least once a year, and a day or so with Ed and Rachel has always been a pleasure.
Ed left us yesterday, and I guess it hasn’t fully hit me yet. It’s still unreal—maybe it will always be that way for me. I’ve got my memories though, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
Ed, my dear friend for the longest time—I salute you! Our loss is Heaven’s gain.