When I was five we moved from Seward to Kenai, near the mouth of the Kenai River. The Kenai River begins at pristine Kenai Lake, in the Kenai mountains, on the Kenai Peninsula, and flows west. It’s a beautiful glacial blue green until it gets close to the mouth, then it meanders through a marshy river flats and the banks become silt clay, which turns the river a corresponding ashy gray color. It oozes out into the Cook Inlet near the town of Kenai.
The town is not built around the river, as you would expect. When we moved there Kenai was a disorderly sprawl of unplanned randomness with no unifying feature and few points of interest. It was mainly a strip of road that had accumulated clusters of buildings along it here and there. There were houses of course, for the 5000 or so residents, and some of them were organized into neighborhoods, but many were just built along roads that someone had hacked back into the woods to get to a lake or gravel pit.
Back in the 70s there was a mall along the main road that provided the sense of a center of things. The mall had some good stores in it, and consequently it was a lively place where the citizens of Kenai would hang out. There was a fun fair – what we referred to as “the carnival” – that came every summer to the parking lot of the mall, and at least one year there was even a circus, with real elephants. I remember this because of their amazingly large turds. Other than that, there wasn’t much going on in Kenai, especially in the winter.
No big deal for a kid though, since wherever you are has at least some potential for adventure – except maybe when you go to the bank and you have to wait in the car for your parents and they are in there almost forever. I had two brothers to play and fight with, though, so even being stuck in the car wasn’t too bad.
My dad was going to build a house out in the woods north of Kenai, in an area called (oddly enough) North Kenai. But first we lived in some apartments in Kenai, The Townhouse Apartments, and they were as fancy as they sound.
The Townhouse Apartments were about a hundred yards from the road, and a hundred yards on the other side of them was the bluff. Maybe I was wrong above when I said Kenai had no unifying feature, because no matter where you were, the bluff was always just a ways off, and always in the same direction through the trees. There were buildings, and woods, and then the ground just dropped away, way down to the gray beach of the silty gray Cook Inlet, and way across that there were beautiful volcanoes. But up close in Kenai mostly what you saw were drab buildings and scraggly spruce trees.
The hundred yards between the apartments and the road consisted of sand. Just a huge sand lot. But I was five years old, so it was a desert. The neighbor kid Brandon Winks, who was also five, and I spent a lot of time rampaging around this desert. I don’t remember much of what we did, typical five-year-old stuff, I guess. Satan’s Pee Hole does stand out, however. That’s where you stick a spruce needle into your pee hole, and that’s all. Brandon showed me that one. There was another version, he told me, called Satan’s Butt Hole, which involved a stick. I told him I got the idea, and declined his demonstration.
Brandon also introduced me to beer. We found a can of warm Oly in his family carport. He dumped some of it into a filthy old plastic tray he scrounged up and we dipped our fingers in it to taste it. We could not believe his dad would drink something so disgusting. Privately though, I was not that surprised. The Winks also ate poop. I had deduced this from the fact that they did not go to church, and were therefore sinners. Ergo, they ate poop. (It had nothing to do with the Satan’s Pee Hole business.) This is what I had gleaned from my five years of churchgoing. Sinners eat poop.
By the time I was in elementary school we had moved into our house in North Kenai, and Kenai became known as “town”. We lived in the woods, so we had to go to town for groceries and things, and to pick up the mail. Town became an abstract, faraway place for the next seven years.
I went to North Kenai Elementary School, but I was back in Kenai for junior high and high school. I spent more time in Kenai then, especially after Charlie and I became friends. He and I would cruise around town looking for trouble to get into. Incidentally, Charlie lived in the very same Townhouse Apartments where I had lived as a wee boy, so it was like coming full circle to go over to his place. As a bored and sullen preteen however, I had no sentimentality about it. It’s only interesting to me now, to think that we shot a gun from his bedroom window into the very same courtyard where I had learned to ride a bicycle.
Kenai when I was in high school was, like, totally nowheresville, man. Totally bogus. There was no more carnival. The mall was lame. There was “the strip”, three or four adjacent parking lots along the road opposite the lame mall, where the soc kids would park their cars and hang out. I wasn’t one of them though, so I missed out on all that fun. I hung with the skaters sometimes, but I wasn’t really one of them either. We liked the same music, but they were all younger than me, my brother John’s friends, and besides, they were kind of hard to keep up with you know, what with them having wheels and all, and me just scuffing around in my Chuck Taylor hightops.
Sometimes the skaters and I would all hang out at the Asbestos Playground. That’s what we called this place we found at the end of a very long, straight gravel road going from a decommissioned military installation just out of town, way back into the woods. We thought it had to have been the scene of dark military secrets, a lab or something. It was derelict when we found it, but not as derelict as it needed to be, so we went to work smashing it up and tagging up the walls with cryptic slogans and logos for bands we hadn’t started yet. We blasted punk rock on the boombox, smoked this or that, drank beer and hurled the bottles at the walls, talked shit, laughed our heads off. That was fun enough, I guess.
By 1987 I had grown up a bit, and so had Kenai. Now it had a traffic light, a 7-11, and a McDonald’s. That was exciting for a lot of people, but by the time I was a Junior I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of that one horse town. So after I graduated, I went to an even smaller town which had no traffic lights, at the very southern border of the Netherlands.