Last June at the Valdez Theatre Conference Play Lab, I attended a reading of a play by Dick Reichmann, called The Ticket. For long-time Alaskans such as myself, it was a fun play, about a hypothetical conversation between Alaska’s first governor, Jay Hammond, and its second and eighth governor, Wally Hickel.
I saw the fully-staged performance of The Ticket last night at Cyrano’s in Anchorage, performed by two outstanding actors who brought these two historical figures alive for us. The gist of the story is that Wally Hickel summons Jay Hammond to his office suite in the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, to talk Hammond into joining his ticket to run for re-election as governor back in the 90s. He wants Hammond to run as his “liberal” lieutenant governor to compliment his more conservative platform, so he can landslide the votes.
Hickel served as the second governor of Alaska from 1966-1969. He resigned when he was confirmed as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior in the cabinet of President Richard Nixon. Hickel’s less conservative views inside the Nixon Administration led to confrontations with the White House. In 1970, after the shooting of college students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard, Hickel wrote a letter disapproving Nixon’s Vietnam War policy, urging him to respect the views of young people critical of the war. His dissent attracted media attention, and subsequently he was fired.
In 1990, he ran under the Alaskan Independence Party and became Alaska’s eighth governor. Hammond served two terms as governor and was both a conservative and a conservationist. He died in 2005 at his home at Lake Clark, Alaska.
The Ticket takes place when Hickel was considering his run again for governor. Hammond and Hickel disagreed more than they agreed, so a spirited imaginary conversation ensues in the play, amusing the audience with a walk down memory lane over forty years of Alaska political history.
For me, it was fun watching the playwright, Dick Reichmann, watch his play being performed. He had a perpetual smile of delight, especially when we laughed at his superbly written dialogue.
At the end of Act 1, coughing erupted in the audience. I coughed right along with everyone else, and several people exited the theatre, complaining of burning eyes and throat. Turns out an audience member had gone hiking and had bear spray in his pocket. It had fallen out and somehow locked into “spray” mode, causing many of us to sputter and cough. The stage manager saved the day by opening all exit doors to the outside and explaining what happened, as she hauled in cases of bottled water, handing them out. I downed two of them to quell my coughing.
Once we knew the cause of our discomfort, we took it in stride—just another night of theatre in Anchorage, Alaska. The play continued with Act 2, and the actors hit a flawless home run, followed by celebratory applause for the playwright.
Afterwards we laughed how ‘Alaskan’ it was for such an occurrence to happen during a play about our state, where wildlife and bears were casually mentioned along with everything else.
I then thought of the first time I ran into Wally Hickel, shortly after moving to Alaska. Literally, ran into him—or rather, smacked him with a door. I rushed into a Conoco gas station on Northern Lights to pay for my tank of gas (we actually had to pay inside back in the 80s). As my gaze locked onto a fancy limo-esque black car—think it was a Bentley—I rushed in from the frosty winter night, flinging the door open. It hit a white-haired guy in a long, navy-blue trench coat, who backed up with an understandably annoyed look. I mumbled, “Oh—sorry—excuse me, didn’t know you were standing there.” He turned his back to me to sign his gas receipt.
I peeked around his shoulder as he penned an oversized swooping signature: Walter J. Hickel. The station attendant ripped his receipt, handing it to Hickel’s black, leather-gloved hand. “Thank you, Governor,” he said, shooting me an aggravated sideways glance.
“You just smacked a former Governor of Alaska and U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Way to go,” he smirked. I felt like an idiot, not knowing who Walter J. Hickel was. Especially since I’d just been hired by the Department of the Interior to work at BLM. I stood frozen, my face green with humiliation and embarrassment. I thought about running outside after the frosted Bentley to gush a more appropriate apology. Instead, I watched it drive away.
My chance to apologize popped up seventeen years later. Wally Hickel appeared at the 2001 Prince William Sound Theatre Conference as a guest speaker, and afterwards, he stood in front of the auditorium, leaning against the stage, talking to people. On impulse, I strode down the steps to where he stood and shyly waited my turn to speak to him. I didn’t know what I’d say, so when he looked at me and smiled, I blurted, “Governor Hickel, I’m so sorry I smacked you with the door at that Conoco gas station on Northern Lights back in ’84!”
He smiled and extended a hand. “So you’re the culprit, huh? I don’t remember that particular incident, but I’ll accept your gracious apology.”
“I thought about running after your car to explain why I was so sorry,” I gushed further. “I was so embarrassed, especially as a new employee at Interior.”
“Bureau of Land Management.”
“Great outfit, they have an immensely important role managing Alaska’s resources on federal lands,” he said. “Do me a favor. Promise you’ll do your best to protect Alaska’s resources in everything you do,” he said.
“I promise. Thank you, Governor—“
Someone interrupted the conversation and diverted Hickel’s attention, so I moved along, naïve about most of the things he’d done for Alaska and the country. It wasn’t until his death in May 2010, when I realized the majority of his accomplishments. And it wasn’t until last night’s play, did I appreciate his morality and vision for Alaska, most of which never saw reality, like the fresh water pipeline he proposed to build to ship Alaska water to California—at California’s expense, of course. I hadn’t realized what a visionary he was, even though many laughed at his project ideas.
Regretfully, for some reason I can’t explain, I didn’t take advantage of opportunities to meet Jay Hammond when he appeared at book signings or speaking events. But when he passed away, the public was invited to the Park Strip to watch the float plane flyover with five planes flying in a missing-man formation over Anchorage from Cook Inlet. I drove to the Park Strip to watch. Hammond’s wife, family and friends stood huddled at one end of the Park Strip as the float plane formation roared over us, one plane veering off. I’ll never forget that experience. It was a fitting tribute to Alaska’s first “Bush-Rat” governor.
One of my favorite Hickel lines in The Ticket is, “When I die, I want to be buried standing up for Alaska, shaking my fists at Washington, D.C.”
Because that’s exactly what happened—he was indeed buried in Anchorage Memorial Cemetery standing up, facing east—towards The White House.
© Lois Paige Simenson and The Alaska Philosophaster, 2016, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to The Alaska Philosophaster with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. LIPS