Recently I have been seeing FaceBook posts from “East High Class of 1969” friends anticipating our 50th class reunion.
I look back with mixed emotions on where I was then, where Alaska was at in context with the rest of the country, and where we have come as a state having tremendous oil wealth.
Our class song was “Born to be Wild,” by Steppenwolf. That was the theme song from the 1969 classic movie “Easy Rider” with Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson.
From the song:
Get your motor runnin’
Head out on the highway
Lookin’ for adventure
And whatever comes our way
Yeah Darlin’ go make it happen
Take the world in a love embrace
Fire all of your guns at once
And explode into space
Nationally 1969 was a year of social and political drama.
January 20, Richard Nixon was sworn in as the 37th President of the United States in the face of a groundswell of social unrest from Pres. Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam. On June 8 President Nixon and South Vietnamese President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu met at Midway Island where Nixon announced that 25,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn by September. On September 14 the US Selective Service held the First Draft Lottery, changing the way men were drafted into the military. Although the war was winding down, on October 15 hundreds of thousands of people took part in “Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam” demonstrations across the United States.
We had those demonstrations in Anchorage, too. I marched and played my 12-string guitar in the bitter cold on the streets of Anchorage and at the Sydney Lawrence Auditorium. Many young men of my generation joined the military or were drafted to fight in this conflict. I opposed the war on principle but never had to face the prospect of being drafted because I went to college and I got a high lottery number.
January 28, a “blowout” on Union Oil’s “Platform A” spilled 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of crude oil into a channel and onto the beaches of Santa Barbara County in Southern California. On February 5 the oil closed Santa Barbara’s harbor and inspired Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson to organize the first “Earth Day” in 1970.
This movement for environmental purity would backdrop the coming discussion about drilling for oil on Alaska’s North Slope and building a pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.
On July 16 the Apollo 11 rocket with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins lifted off toward the first landing on the Moon where it did land on July 20. An estimated 500 million people worldwide watched in awe. A second Apollo 12 spacecraft, November 19 with astronauts Charles Conrad and Alan Bean landed at Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of Storms”), becoming the third and fourth humans to walk on the Moon before returning safely and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean November 24.
We watched this event in real time while most other news reports had traditionally been delayed while newsreels were flown up from Seattle.
August 15–August 18, The Woodstock Festival was held in upstate New York, featuring some of the top rock musicians of the era. A two-tape VCR of this event was played in many homes around Alaska. On December 6 In contrast, the Altamont Free Concert was held at the Altamont Speedway in northern California. Hosted by The Rolling Stones, it was an attempt at a “Woodstock West” production and is best known for the uproar of violence that occurred. It is viewed by many as the “end of the sixties.”
In May of 1969 graduates of East Anchorage High school heard U.S. Senator Mike Gravel give our commencement address. He had beat out Ernest Gruening in the 1968 election. Sen. Gravel tried to end the draft and famously put the Pentagon Papers into the public record in 1971. He played a crucial role in getting Congressional approval for the Trans-Alaska pipeline in 1973. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1974, but gradually alienated most of his Alaskan constituencies and his bid for a third term was defeated in the 1980 primary election.
The most significant thing that happened in 1969 was the September 10 Alaska Department of Natural Resources oil lease sale for North Slope lands. Gov. Wally Hickel had moved on to serve as Nixon’s Secretary of the Interior and Lt. Gov. Keith Miller was on hand at Sydney Lawrence Auditorium to open the bidding and turn the proceedings over to DNR Commissioner Tom Kelly. In his book “Prudhoe Bay Governor” Miller states: “By the end of the day the major oil companies, and some minor ones, bid just over 900 million dollars for the right to drill and produce on those lands owned by the State of Alaska.”
This was a harbinger of things to come. Alaska had been purchased from Russia for $7.2 million, and that is the same value of the oil filling the first tanker out of Valdez. Hundreds have since filled up and taken our bounty to market.
Again, from the song:
Like a true nature’s child
We were born, born to be wild
We can climb so high
I never wanna die!
Donn Liston first went to Juneau as a legislative aide in 1983 and remained there 20 years. After becoming certified as a classroom teacher in 2003 he and his wife returned to Anchorage where he taught primarily Adult Basic Education until 2017 when he accepted a position as staff to the representative from Eagle River. This column is intended to be instructional and provide insight into how our state government is run through the eyes of someone who has watched it from various perches over decades. To reach Donn, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.