Cool Hand Luke at Anatuvuk Pass

Paul Newman as Cool Hand Luke, 1967.No one ever compared me to Paul Newman. No one except a dozen Inupiat kids who heralded our arrival in Anaktuvuk Pass by shouting “Cool Hand Luke! Cool Hand Luke!” The village school teacher explained later that it was their way of noting my blue eyes. I’m not vain, but hey, I liked it.

The kids had seen the film several nights earlier in the Anaktuvuk Pass community center. It was late in August, 1974, a month before the caribou migration poured through the pass. We had just walked across the Brooks Mountains to Alaska’s North Slope.  and Anaktuvuk, which means “place of caribou droppings” in Inupiat was the first human settlement we’d seen in a month.

There is symmetry here somewhere.  According to Bob Mondello, Paul Newman’s greatest honor in his long movie career was earning a place on Richard Nixon’s Enemies List. Anaktuvuk Pass is where I learned that Nixon resigned as President. I hadn’t heard any news for a month, except for wind whistling across the Arctic Divide. I didn’t believe it. How could Nixon quit while I was incommunicado in Alaska? So the school teacher showed me a week-old copy of Newsweek with President Jerry Ford on the cover.

The next day, the teacher helped us hitch a ride out of the Arctic on a Cessna Sky-Wagon carrying propane tanks to and from the village. Yours truly was strapped on an empty propane cylinder when the plane’s engine stalled after take-off from a gravel bar in the John River. I’d like to say I felt like Cool Hand Luke then, but that’s another story.

Read Paul Newman’s NYT obit.

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