History with a sense of humor, Part 1

The first part of a two-part collection of humorous tales gleaned from old newspapers on the central Kenai Peninsula.

Evel Knievel is shown in his rocket on Sept. 8, 1974, before his failed attempt at a highly promoted 3/4-mile leap across Snake River Canyon in Idaho. (AP Photo/File)

Evel Knievel is shown in his rocket on Sept. 8, 1974, before his failed attempt at a highly promoted 3/4-mile leap across Snake River Canyon in Idaho. (AP Photo/File)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the first part of a two-part collection of humorous tales gleaned from old newspapers on the central Kenai Peninsula.

Evel & Awful

The comparisons were obvious and understandable. Evel Knievel, famed daredevil motorcycle rider, planned to jump over the Snake River canyon in Idaho on Sept. 8, 1974. The previously unknown Awful Knawful planned to jump over Beaver Creek in Kenai three weeks later, on Sept. 29, 1974.

Knievel planned to make his jump in a two-wheeled, steam-powered vehicle that he had painted red-white-and-blue and dubbed the X-2 Skycycle.

Knawful, whose budgetary considerations forced him into a slightly lower-tech operation, planned to make his jump on a three-wheeled, specially designed tricycle.

Both would take off from a ramp — Knievel’s aimed skyward, and Knawful’s earthward.

For publicity, Knievel hired Bob Arum’s company, Top Rank Productions (which usually promoted boxing matches), to put the event on closed-circuit television and to arrange all the financing for the jump itself.

Knawful employed his press agent, Royce Adams, to get the word out. Subsequently a brief article promoting the jump appeared on the front page of The Cheechako News three days before the event. The Cheechako promo ended with this ringing endorsement from Adams: “This is no joke. A special ramp is being built for the jump.”

Knievel hired aeronautical engineer Doug Malewicki to build the X-1 Skycycle, powered by an engine built by former Aerojet engineer Robert Truax. After a test launch in 1972, Truax built a second Skycycle, dubbed the X-2, which is the vehicle Knievel climbed into on Sept. 8 two years later.

Knawful also used assistants. He employed Joe Ross as his engineer and had Harry Axson, Jay Lietzke and Mike French construct a 64-foot-long, 20-foot-high wooden ramp from which to launch his attempt.

Knievel launched at 3:36 p.m., Mountain Daylight Time. As a huge television audience watched, the steam that powered the Skycycle engine was superheated to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, and the force of the blast-off created immediate problems:

The drogue parachute deployed too soon because the bolts holding its cover stripped out, and the subsequent drag failed to allow the rocket to land properly, even though the X-2 reached the full three-quarters of a mile across the canyon to the north rim. Instead, the chute caused the rocket to drift backward, and it landed on the river bank on the same side from which it had been launched.

Knawful launched at about noon, Alaska Daylight Time. In front of a crowd that may have been generously estimated at 300 onlookers, Knawful got rolling. A Peninsula Clarion article (with two black-and-white photos) the following week said that Knawful’s “gravitationally powered” vehicle zoomed down the ramp, but this launch, too, was imperfect:

The “precision instruments controlling the parachute malfunctioned,” wrote the Clarion. Consequently, Knawful, whose effort had been sponsored by the Kenai Peninsula Racing Association, dropped right into the drink.

According to news reports, if Knievel had landed in the Snake River, he would have drowned because of a malfunction with his jumpsuit harness. As it was, he survived the jump with only minor injuries.

According to the local papers, Knawful splash-landed in the center of Beaver Creek. The Clarion claimed that Knawful then “swam for his life,” and the Cheechako added that he climbed out and exclaimed to “autograph hounds” that he’d make it all the way across the following year.

Knievel went on to more fame and more big events.

And Knawful, although he claimed that more daredevil stunts were in his near future, never made quite so big a splash again.

The Job No One Seemed to Want

The difficulties began innocuously enough.

On the front page of the Saturday, July 19, 1969, edition of The Cheechako News, was a four-paragraph story entitled “Harrison Attends Last Council Meeting.” In those four paragraphs, readers learned that James W. (Bill) Harrison, who had been Kenai’s city manager for four years, was resigning to accept a similar job in Silver City, New Mexico.

Kenai Mayor Eugene Morin and members of the city council lamented Harrison’s departure, but they unanimously agreed to craft a letter of recommendation for him and send him on his way with hearty thanks.

Harrison’s last official council meeting took place on Wednesday, July 16, and after he departed, his position was filled on an interim basis by Nels Kjelstad, who became acting city manager while the city sought a candidate to take the job permanently.

Forty people responded to the job search by sending in their applications. By the time the council had winnowed that number down to 10, seven of the 10 were still interested in the job. The remaining applicants were then reduced to three finalists, each of whom was brought in for an interview on Tuesday, Sept. 16.

During a special session on Sept. 18, the council unanimously selected Raymond Barth of Galt, California, as its top choice. Barth, a three-year Galt city administrator who had also spent about another decade in administrative posts elsewhere in California, accepted the job.

On the night of Saturday, Oct. 25, Barth arrived in town. On Monday, Oct. 27, he boarded an 8:30 a.m. flight and returned to California.

In a note to Mayor Morin, Barth said that his wife, who was set to fly to Alaska a few weeks hence, was “extremely ill,” so he had left to be with her.

Barth, who had not even been in town long enough to take the oath of office, was replaced by Kjelstad, who once again became acting city manager.

On Tuesday, Nov. 18, it was announced that the city had voted unanimously (again) to hire Fred W. Baxter of Victorville, California, as its new city manager.

Baxter, who was the Victorville city manager and who had held prior administrative positions in California and Korea after a 20-year Air Force career, accepted the position, which would pay him an annual salary of $22,872 (rising to $24,012 after a 90-day probationary period).

Baxter arrived on Sunday morning, Nov. 30, and was sworn in at the city council’s meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 3.

The Cheechako reported that Baxter said he “had wanted to come to Alaska for several years,” and that he was “looking forward to hunting in Alaska.” Of his first impressions of his new home, he said that people “seemed much nicer here than in California.”

But on the front page of the Saturday, Dec. 13, Cheechako, this headline appeared: “Kenai May Be in Market for City Manager Again.”

On the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 9, Baxter had pulled his car out of the parking lot at Larry’s Club and struck another vehicle moving along the North Road. He was cited for failure to yield the right of way. Afterwards, according to the paper, the “innuendoes” began.

Apparently “certain city councilmen” began to make insinuations, and Baxter didn’t like them. On Friday, Dec. 12, he arranged for a letter to be passed on to the mayor and then boarded a plane back to California. In the letter, according to the mayor, Baxter said that he “felt it was in the best interests of the city” that he resign.

Disappointed, Mayor Morin refused to accept Baxter’s resignation. He made a personal call to Baxter in California, asked him to reconsider, and gave him 24 hours to think it over.

But Baxter never called back. So the Kenai City Council went looking again while Kjelstad resumed his now-familiar duties.

Kenai finally found its man a week later. In a Saturday, Dec. 20, Cheechako article titled “Kenai Has Another New City Manager,” the mayor announced that the city had accepted Baxter’s resignation and had agreed unanimously to hire Ormond O. Robbins, a manager with the Federal Aviation Administration in Anchorage.

Robbins, who had previously held the same FAA position in Kenai, claimed to be delighted to move back to the peninsula.

And the City of Kenai had a Merry Christmas after all.

Not as Funny the Second Time

The small headline befit the small item on page one of the Cheechako News on Feb. 26, 1960: “Kipp and Craig Autos Collide.”

Beneath the headline was this single paragraph: “An icy corner at Cook and Main in Kenai was the cause of an accident last week. Clarence Craig of Soldotna was unable to execute a complete right turn because of the ice and his left fender hit the left fender of the oncoming (pickup) driven by Clarice Kipp of Kenai. Both autos needed to have fenders bent out before they were able to drive away.”

Kipp and her husband Glenn had come to Alaska in 1954, residing in Anchorage until they moved to Kenai the following year. Both of them were prominent in the Civil Air Patrol, and Clarice was active in the area Homemakers Club.

A week after the incident at Cook and Main, Glenn Kipp was out driving the pickup around when an eerily similar set of circumstances presented itself. Loren Stewart, owner of the Cheechako and known for his quick wit, wasted no time in drawing the parallels for his readers.

On page one of the next issue of the paper (March 11, 1960), this headline and brief story appeared: “Kipp and Eagle Cars Collide.”

“An icy parkway in front of Peninsula Builders in Kenai was the reported cause of an accident last week that again involved Glenn Kipp’s battered auto,” Stewart wrote. “Rex Eagle’s auto was the other car. Glenn, who had considerable comment about the accident that occurred last week when wife Clarice was driving, has been unavailable for comment (this time). It is reported that in case of questioning he intends to take the Fifth Amendment.”

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