In his first memoir, “Learning the Ropes” (Todd Communications, 2019), Halibut Cove writer Mike Gordon focused his book on the mountains he’s climbed around the world. In the continuing saga of the wild life of the man who started the iconic Spenard bar, Chilkoot Charlie’s, Gordon anchors his latest book, “Dagnabit,” in the tale of Ruben Gaines, the poet and cartoonist who invented the character who gave the bar its name.
But just as “Learning the Ropes” also had a love story about Gordon’s romance with his wife, Shelli, “Dagnabit” could be a love story of those glorious years of the 1970s and 1980s in Alaska where anything could — and did — happen. Almost 79, Gordon grew up in Anchorage and came of age along with the territory. With a sharp eye for detail and an appreciation of the absurdities and foibles of Alaska, he captures those moments as Alaska grew from a punk teenager into an adult.
“This one’s not quite so personal,” Gordon said in a phone interview on Monday. “It has some history in it.”
Unlike “Learning the Ropes,” “Dagnabit” does not have the distinction of being banned in the People’s Republic of China. When Gordon sent “Learning the Ropes” to a Chinese printer, the printer told him it couldn’t do the book unless he cut pages 84 to 101 about Gordon’s attempt in 1990 to climb Mount Everest and his description of Tibet. Gordon got an American printer and published an uncensored version at $8,000 more than the Chinese printer.
For “Dagnabit,” he tried again to get it printed in China.
“If there’s nothing objectionable in this one, and they don’t have me on a list — we went at it with that attitude, send it over and see what happens,” Gordon said. “There we no objections this time.”
Some chapters in “Dagnabit” were written when Gordon worked on “Learning the Ropes,” but didn’t fit that book. The Ruben Gaines chapters are all new. Gordon said he could have done a separate book alone on Gaines.
“Shelli and I spent two or three evenings with Ruben talking about his life in great detail,” Gordon said.
For people who lived in Alaska or Anchorage from the 1970s to the 1980s during the eras of building the pipeline, the oil boom and then the oil crash, “Dagnabit” delivers story after story of fond memories, like that of The Hogg Brothers Cafe next to Chilkoot Charlie’s.
Along with Gaines, “Dagnabit” features a cast of characters. There are good guys like Gordon’s childhood friend Norman Rokeberg and a whole bunch of thugs and villains who get into epic fights. Some names have been changed to protect the guilty, Gordon said.
Another chapter is about Playboy magazine doing a photo shoot at Chilkoot Charlie’s after a local hotel backs out of being a venue. In appreciation, Gordon sent Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner a walrus oosik. “Dagnabit” has a copy of Hefner’s thank you letter in which he notes “a walrus would obviously be a tough act to follow.”
“It’s a pretty nostalgic book for somebody who’s been in Alaska during those years,” Gordon said.
Like “Learning the Ropes,” “Dagnabit” also includes stories of Gordon’s travels. Here the focus is not on mountain climbing, but the local culture. One chapter tells of visiting the Soviet Union to climb Mount Elbrus. Coincidentally, while Gordon and his fellow climbers make their ascent, the Soviet Union collapses.
“That’s one of the thing that had been written previous to publishing ‘Learning the Ropes,’” Gordon said. “I didn’t have room to put it in there. I went back to it. It was too interesting to leave out, I thought.”
That trip to Russia and the thawing of distrust between the United States and the Soviet Union even led to a Russian band playing at Chilkoot Charlie’s.
“Here we have this Russian band playing on the south side of ‘Koots,” Gordon said. “It was pretty cool. Talk about a thawing of the waters. It was a hopeful era. Putin put an end to it.”
“Dagnabit” also includes another tale of foreign travel, a trip to India. Gordon had written that chapter before “Learning the Ropes,” but didn’t have room for it.
Those kind of stories might spark another book, Gordon said. He’s working on a story now about a trip to Fiji in the 1980s when he bought some property.
“It’s another one of those ones that’s taking ages to get started,” he said. “I’ve got all the stuff. It’s complicated. It’s a real insight in what might happen when you invest in offshore, Third World countries, including devaluations and military coups.”
Gordon has been promoting his book around Alaska, including a trip to Fairbanks, where he did a book signing at Costco. He’s also done book signings at Costco in Anchorage and, of course, at Chilkoot Charlie’s. The book has been well received, he said.
“I get a lot of interaction with people and I sell a lot of books,” he said. “It’s good exposure.”