My previous installment ended at the ferry in Port Angeles, Washington. There I’d met up with a group of adventurers headed for Alaska in a van, a wine red Chevy van, in fact. Invited to go along, I jumped at the chance. However, in order to finance the trip I needed to take a side trip to my hometown in Edmonton, one province to the east. There I’d quickly fire sale my meager assets for cash. My new friends proved more than accommodating; they changed course, deciding to tour the national parks Banff and Jasper, while I hurried ahead and sold off all that I could. We met up a few days later and off we went.
We entered the US at the Yukon-Alaska border, along a route called the Top of the World Highway, a scenic drive entirely deserving of its name. It was mid-September. Summer holidays were well over. We had the road to ourselves. My experience at this border crossing was quite different from the third degree I received at the Osoyoos station the first time I entered America. There wasn’t much that was intimidating here. It was a lonely outpost, a single small brown wooden shack beside the road. As we slowed on our approach, out popped a uniformed young fella with a big grin on his face.
We pulled over and un-piled out of the van to stretch our legs and chat with the official. This guy was no grizzled, world-weary, hard-ass with a flat-top crew cut. He seemed quite amiable. We introduced ourselves, the guy from Chicago, the girl from Texas, the girl from Israel, the guy from New Zealand and me, the Canadian. He liked the cosmopolitan composition of our group. He had all kinds of questions. He said hoped to go to New Zealand one day. What was that like? How about Israel? Was it really safe for tourists? He asked us about our trip, if we’d seen the can-can in Dawson City. We had a good long talk, a bit of a laugh, some fresh air, an excellent stretch. Refreshed, we all piled back in the van and said good-bye to the lonely border guard, who wished us a bon voyage, and then we drove off cheering because we had finally reached our goal; we were in Alaska!
Following the cheers, after a minute or two of silence, the driver asked, did anybody show that border guy any ID? Come to think of it, no, no one had. Strange, it never came up. We all fell back into silence. That WAS a most unusual border experience.
Now I skip ahead to the end of October. Our troop is breaking up. We’d been hiking in Denali; we’d been fishing down in Homer. But now the big adventure was over. The Texan, the New Zealander and the Israeli, booked and boarded their flights home. The guy from Chicago had decided to stay in Anchorage. He confessed he’d been thinking about doing this the whole trip. He thought he would have no trouble finding work in his field.
I decided that I, too, wanted to stay, to keep the adventure going. But I had no clue what I’d do for work. There weren’t any restrictions imposed on me at the border. Officially, I wasn’t even in the country, I guess. However, I had no social security number permitting me to work.
At first I sought out places that hired illegals, fish canneries mostly. I’d been about these by various travelers we’d met over the course of our month in Alaska. But no doing. The ones I went to had shut down for the winter. Then my friend from Chicago suggested that I simply adopt his name and use his social security number for work. He said he would be making so much money in the oil and gas sector that the little bit I would add to his tax burden would hardly be noticed by him or the government.
I resorted to the local day labor office to get my start in the Alaskan working world. It was all grunt work, mostly on construction sites; carrying hod, setting up a Quonset hut in the snow, that kind of thing. It was through this office that I did the worst job I’ve ever done in my life, and one of the easiest. These anecdotes I’ll set aside, maybe for next week.
One day I ended up as a day laborer on construction site owned by this Brian guy. It was a small project, about ten bungalows around cul-de-sac out in a new suburb on the east of Anchorage. The general contractor’s crew was then only two; a site supervisor and a carpenter. I was hired on around the time they started pouring the final few foundations, mostly to lug material around and pick up garbage.
But then fate provided me with a small opportunity. The temperature was well below freezing and the company needed someone to fill up the big diesel heaters in the middle of the night to keep the concrete in the new foundations alive until it set and cure for a few days. When the boss realized I was willing to do this, he offered me a full-time job. No one else wanted to do it; wake up at midnight, drive across town to a frozen construction site to start splashing diesel fuel around in the dark with the howling wind throwing snow in your face, and then the drive home, and then waking up again in 5 hours to go put in a full day’s work. It was nuts but I needed the money.
My buddy kindly lent me his Chevy van for this. So I was in. After about a month, this small company had a crisis. One day the site supervisor went to meet with the boss and he never came back. I was told he got canned for using the company’s charge account to buy material used to renovate his own home. So then we were two. The carpenter became the site super, and I became… well, I was still the laborer.
It was around then that the carpenter informed me that our boss was actually the Brian Hyland, singer of such pop hits as “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and “Sealed With A Kiss,” though he went by his real name now. I was skeptical at first, but I came around to accepting it. I thought it was pretty cool. And I thought it was really cool that the boss didn’t mind strapping on the tool belt and pitching in when an extra hand was needed. He was nice guy. The carpenter and I were invited over to his house to meet his family. I was introduced as the young man who intervened at a critical time in the construction project by filling the heaters on those long cold nights. It was during this visit that I saw the gold records on the wall in the hallway.
As spring approached and the construction project neared completion, the carpenter decided to cave to his wife’s demands and move his young family—they two children under six—back to their home state of Michigan, closer to the grandparents.
And then there would be one. A few months previous, I arrived on site as a day laborer. Now I was the last man standing, about to become site supervisor by default.
All this time I’d been working under a name that wasn’t mine. My alias like my real name started with a “K,” but after this promising start it veered off in a different direction. There were more than a few potential, unrealized comic moments when people would stand next to me and be forced to repeat what they thought was my name over and over again, waiting for me to answer, similar to that Simpsons episode, “Your name is Thompson…”
I found out later the consensus on the job-site was that I was actually a bit deaf. It had to be that. This was the contract painter’s theory. I didn’t seem like a stupid person, so what other explanation for this non-response was there? And when I was out drinking with the gang? The situation was worse.
And so it was one night at the bar, just before the carpenter moved away, we got drunk together, plastered, shitfaced. And I spilled the beans about my identity. It probably wasn’t the best moment to do this. But it had to be done; I’ll explain that in just a moment.
There was a third person with us at the bar that evening, the painter. He was to provide the outrage, on behalf of all America, at my illegal alien status. He was in fact the instigator of most of our drinking bouts. He was a gigantic fellow, about 6’6″, around 40-years-old, lean and dark-haired, a bearded Kris Kristofferson type, if that singer was a lot taller, wore ugly glasses and was a lot meaner. I had be informed at some earlier point on the QT that this guy was former “special forces” and a bit nuts. So watch out.
Drinking with him on several occasions, I discovered his passion was “collecting” weapons—I don’t mean rifles and stuff, I mean like mortars and machine guns, the bigger the better. From what I gathered from his bar talk, he thought that the government—the government that he had fought for, that he had killed for, some killed with these bare hands, YIKES!—was evil and that anarchy was just around the corner. He wasn’t a Foxfire survivalist. He was going to fight it out. I think he liked me because I’d drink with him, and he was the type of combat vet—and I met a few guys up there like this—who needed to drink every night just to get to sleep.
Now, the practical reason for my confession. The company was turning over houses to owners at that time, and there were certain legal responsibilities involved with this. I was about to be promoted and I wasn’t sure what would be required of me. I felt a certain amount of guilt regarding my personal fraud. Also, I wasn’t looking for a future with this company. I just wanted to take the money I made and go to Europe, and I wanted to leave in about a month. This is what I broke down and told the carpenter and the painter. And as I told them my real name, I actually started crying. Yes, I ashamed to admit it, but that’s what happened. Did I forget to mention that I had fallen hard for that Israeli girl and that I intended to visit her? Yeah, so there was that. I was kinda doing this for love, wasn’t I? I thought it was love at the time. Anyway, I was pretty drunk and really maudlin.
So was the painter, the ex-special forces guy. He actually became super patriotic, at least temporarily. He got really mad at me and I recall him waving a fist in my face, a fist as big as face, and he swore and called me a little shit I should break yer neck blah blah. He then stood up and stormed out without—I should add—committing any atrocities on behalf of his homeland. The carpenter grew quiet and serious. Did I mention he had a chin curtain beard? Yeah, he did, and when he got thoughtful he looked positively Amish. Finally, my Amish-looking carpenter friend collected himself and told me he really had no choice, he would have to tell the boss.
So now we’ve finally arrived at the moment, the big reveal. Why did the supposedly retired singer forgive the shit-for-brains illegal alien Canadian for his deception? According to the carpenter, who told me this a day or two later, it went something like this. And I want to stress that I was never-ever once told this by the man who was supposedly Brian Hyland. It’s all second hand, never verified which is why I’ve never committed this story to print before. But time has passed. The truth—or something similar—will out.
The carpenter said to his surprise the boss didn’t want to fire me. He realized he couldn’t promote me, but I could still babysit the job-site. He would be the supervisor and I would just be his eyes and ears for the month or so remaining before I flew on to Europe.
Then the boss explained to the carpenter that he himself was attempting to get his own travel documents together. He wanted to travel to Italy to visit his mother who was dying. But there was a problem. Years ago, his father had been associated with the Italian mafia, had entered the country illegally and remained undocumented. His parents split when he was young and his mother returned to Italy, leaving him in the care of his dad. Bottom line, Brian’s birth had never been properly registered. Now he desperately needed a passport and was having all kinds of trouble. Because of this, he had some empathy for me. And, as long as I was leaving soon and the taxes on my work had been paid, he was content to leave it at that. A month later, I flew from Anchorage to London, England. I never found out whether my boss ever got to see his mother, or even if any of this was, in fact, true.
I began this anecdote by referring to a letter of recommendation from that construction company. Before I flew out, I mailed the letter home for safe keeping.
I want to point out that my boss signed it using his real name. And he wrote it using my real name. It just a simple thing, quite proper, but to me, it’s quite the thing. God bless you, Brian Hyland, or whoever you were.
This third installment first appeared in the Grace & Steel podcast, Episode 14, November 23, 2015.