My Turn: Good reading about good Alaskans

Posted: Sunday, January 05, 2003

Happy New Year. Many received gift certificates for books for Christmas. On rainy, gloomy winter days, reading is great educational entertainment. It also lifts the spirits.

Two Alaska books were high on our list of uplifting books this holiday season. One was out last summer, "9 Lives of An Alaska Bush Pilot," by Ketchikan's Ken Eichner. The other was out in October, "Alaska's Heroes," by Juneau's Nancy Warren Ferrell.

Almost two dozen books about Alaska bush pilots are available through Amazon.com and most are rated four or five stars by readers. Bush pilots and their chroniclers are popular. The difference between Eichner's tales and those of others is that only Eichner has flown fixed wing aircraft and helicopters for 58 years. He still passes the flight physical and still flies at age 84. Among authors about flying in Alaska, his experience is unequaled.

Each July 4 Eichner flies a huge American flag from a helicopter and displays it along the Ketchikan waterfront to signal the start of the Independence Day parade and holiday celebration.

A day after the nation was shocked by the terrorists' attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, Eichner paraded Old Glory by Ketchikan residents who were scrambling to buy their own flags. The Ketchikan fly-by was so popular that Metlakatla city officials requested the same for their community and recessed school so students could go outside to salute the passing American symbol.

Aside from good entertainment, Eichner's book is a great ground school course in Alaska bush flying. He built his company, TEMSCO, from a one-machine operation in the early 1950s to more than 40 machines and 24 fixed wing aircraft covering Alaska by the time he sold out in 1989. Ken and Peggy Eichner's grandson, Eric, still represents the Eichner family at TEMSCO. He is chief pilot.

Before and during the time Ken built TEMSCO his many experiences enabled him to compile a list of dos and don'ts of Alaska flying. He concludes his book: "I've made full use of all of my 'nine lives' and probably used up several more. On many, many occasions if I had gone left instead of right, I wouldn't be here to write this book. It is my hope that by writing those experiences down, future generations of pilots will not have to learn those lessons and use up their 'nine lives' the way I did."

The community of Ketchikan named an airport ferry after Eichner. It named another after Dick Borch in appreciation of their contributions to the community by forming the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad.

In 1965, the Alaska Legislature authorized the governor to award annually a state medal for bravery and heroism. The first medal was awarded before a medal could be struck, according to author Ferrell. It went to a 22-year-old Ketchikan man, Al Rothfuss. Ferrell describes in dramatic detail how Rothfuss rescued 2-year-old Emily Guthrie one August afternoon after she had fallen in Ketchikan Creek.

Rothfuss jumped into the creek, forgetting he was weighted down by pockets full of coins he was collecting from pop machines on his route for Ketchikan Soda Works. Fortunately, he made the rescue, helped by several others, such as Coast Guard Yeoman Mark Zartarian.

Author Ferrell contacted more than 113 people and consulted many files to recount the heroism that has led to 29 medal awards since the first bestowed on Rothfuss by Gov Bill Egan. Rothfuss, now retired, lives in Copper Center.

One of the medal recipients died in his heroic efforts, a 10-year-old boy in Nome, Darin Olanna. He awakened others when an arsonist started a fire in his home. All got out except one woman. Darin went back inside to help her, but both perished.

Acts of heroism have occurred in almost every major city and spanned outlying areas from St. Lawrence Island to Delta Junction, from North Pole to Prince of Wales. They include incidents such as: "A man plunges into an ice-cold lake, risking hypothermia to pull passengers from a downed plane; a compassionate flight attendant calms a gun-wielding hijacker to bring a terrifying ordeal to a safe conclusion; a 13-year-old paperboy ventures into a blazing home to rescue two young children who had been left alone."

Ferrell is a polished professional writer, as this book, her 12th, indicates. It is published by Alaska Northwest Books.

After an election year of vicious political invective - some directed at the new governor and his daughter - which continued through the season of peace and good will, it is nice to read about a lot of nice Alaskans.

And there are a lot of them.

Lew M. Williams Jr. is the retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News.



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