GOING TO EXTREMES by Joe McGinniss

Recently I was in a bookstore in Anchorage, Alaska and came across a book by Joe McGinniss entitled, GOING TO EXTREMES. Having read his THE SELLING OF THE PRESIDENT 1968 about the attempt to repackage Richard Nixon for the 1968 presidential campaign, and CRUEL DOUBT which centers on a society murder in a small North Carolina town in 1988, I was intrigued.  After reading the introduction to the new edition written in 2010, as the original was published in 1981, I learned that McGinniss had thanked Sarah Palin for the inspiration to revisit Alaska after the 2008 Republican Convention and how the state had impacted him in the mid-1970s.  The book itself is part memoir, geographical guide, and history of the 49th state that was admitted to the United States sixteen years before what McGinniss describes in his own thought provoking and humorous style as the transformation of Alaska due to the domination of “big oil.”

A few weeks ago while standing below a section of the Alaska pipeline outside Fairbanks I learned that 85% of the state’s revenue is a result of oil and that each Alaskan resident receives a check for $2-3,000 a year as a tax rebate depending on the whims of politicians and oil production.  The money pays college tuition and numerous other costs for Alaska’s citizens and one cannot imagine where Alaska would be today without the money stream from “big oil.” McGinniss’ main motivation in visiting Alaska in 1975 was to experience the awesome beauty of its primal wilderness and mountains, for what he feared might be the last days of the last frontier America would ever have.

(Denali, over 20,000 feet above sea level, the highest peak in North America)

McGinniss would spend a year traveling and living among the native Eskimos and local citizens trying to get to the core of what it meant to be an Alaskan native, and those characters who settled in Alaska by choice for many diverse and unusual reasons.  The book describes a state that in many parts seems to be a world where things remain just as they had been forty or four hundred years before.  However, with the political and economic pressures fostered by the Alaskan pipeline they were about to change radically as I witnessed on my recent visit a few weeks ago.

The reader accompanies the author as he crosses the state from an amazing trek through the Brooks Range as he describes the Oolah Pass, part of the Continental Divide not between east and west, but the Arctic Divide.  Below this point water flowed south, emptying into the Pacific Ocean.  Beyond the Pass it drained into the Arctic Ocean!  We meet many fascinating characters who lived in the wilderness, towns, villages, and cities, from the state capitol in Juneau which cannot be reached by road, to Barrow which lies 330 miles above the Arctic Circle in the north, Seward in the south, and Denali* in the center.  Alaska’s topography make it a necessity for people to have pilot’s license if they are to survive the state’s rugged terrain, and in fact one out of every six residents do.  The need for air transport also serves as a time machine as you fly from Anchorage to Fairbanks to the north and on to coastal areas that seem fifty years behind.

(Oolah Pass, the Arctic Divide)

McGinniss spends a great deal of time exploring the impact of western technology and the coming of the white culture.  It has had a particularly devastating effect on younger Eskimos who were not set in the ways of the older generation.  What emerges is that Eskimo culture is being destroyed as they confront the Americanization of Alaska brought on by the wealth produced by the oil pipeline.  They are migrating to cities in great number seeking welfare aid, taking jobs on the pipeline earning money that they have no clue on how to deal with, or trying to survive in their villages.

In his trek throughout state, McGinniss meets a cavalcade of individuals unique in character and possess outlandish life stories that seem to culminate in Alaska.  World War II veterans abound, Grateful “Deadheads,” policemen from Denver, former businessmen and educators, writers, bureaucrats, and many who are recently divorced and trying to put their lives back together.  Others are seeking freedom, adventure, or just to get rich quick from the oil boom.  We meet people who arrive from Seattle on a barge in what appears to be a “hippie coup” of a small village as they take over the radio station, newspaper, and school library.  The descriptions and stories abound like Duncan Pyle, a former bestselling Canadian author who for a time was the Chairman of the Language Department at the Inupiat University of the Arctic, a university housed in a shack.  As Olive Cook who grew up in Bethel which is located at the confluence of the Bering Sea and the Yukon River who left for a job in Washington, D.C., but she could never reconcile her Eskimo culture and white technological society.  We also meet Eddie the Basque, a pipefitter from Idaho who hoped to make enough money from the pipeline to retire, however, by the time he arrived the pipeline was almost completed.

(The Alaska Oil Pipeline outside Fairbanks)

It seems that everyone that the author meets left the lower forty eight states for Alaska without any knowledge of what they were getting themselves into.  A case in point is Tom and Marie Brennan who left newspaper jobs in Worcester, MA and set out in their International Harvester Travel All pulling a houseboat on wheels.  After traveling 5000 miles they eventually reached Anchorage were they got jobs on the Anchorage Times and witness the spectacular growth of Alaska’s largest city, and Tom, who escaped Massachusetts, would soon become the Public relations Head for Atlantic Richfield and the oil pipeline!

McGinniss’ description of Fairbanks is as if it did not exist on earth, “but on a distant planet; a planet that was much farther from the sun.”  In fact, many of the author’s descriptions have that out of the earth’s universe feel to it as Alaska is not like any other area in our union, particularly the winters.  Many stark descriptions of the landscape are offered, but despite these comments, the sheer beauty of Alaska’s bareness comes through, from the Kahiltna Glacier 7200 feet above sea level which is the staging area for hikers to climb Denali or the Yukon River that flows from the Bering Sea all the way across Alaska into Canada.

GOING TO EXTREMES is a unique look at our 49th state, a view that is hard to accept for many natives because of the way their lives have changed.  However, for the Alaska novice like myself in conjunction with my recent visit it was eye opening what the oil boom has done to the state and its people.  Whether you are a conservationist, an individual who believes in the development of Alaska’s natural resources, or someone who wishes that the government would just leave Alaskans alone there is something worthwhile to be taken from McGinniss’ narrative.

*The name of the highest mountain in North America became a subject of dispute in 1975, when the Alaska Legislature asked the U.S. federal government to officially change its name from Mount McKinley to Denali. The mountain had been unofficially named Mount McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector, and officially by the United States government in 1917 to commemorate William McKinley, who was president of the United States from 1897 until his assassination in 1901. (Wikipedia)

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PACIFIC: SILICON CHIPS AND SURFBOARDS, CORAL REEFS AND ATOM BOMBS, BRUTAL DICTATORS, FADING EMPIRES, AND THE COMING COLLISION OF THE WORLD’S SUPERPOWERS by Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester’s latest book, PACIFIC: SILICON CHIPS AND SURFBOARDS, CORAL REEFS AND ATOM BOMBS, BRUTAL DICTATORS, FADING EMPIRES, AND THE COMING COLLISION OF THE WORLD’S SUPERPOWERS reinforces why I am such a fan and admirer of this eclectic social scientist.  No matter what topic Mr. Winchester takes on he has the uncanny ability to unwind what is a standard interpretation or history of a well-known topic and ferret out little known details to make something that is quite interesting, fascinating.  The list of Winchester’s books are impressive, whether he is exploring the history of the Atlantic, the men responsible for the creation of the English Oxford Dictionary, the annihilation of the volcano island of Krakatoa, or the story of the geologist, William Smith and how he geologically mapped the underside of the earth, and many more, the reader emerges educated and entertained by a master story teller.

In his current venture, Winchester explores historical aspects of the Pacific Ocean or in contemporary parlance the Pacific Rim.  Winchester is a social scientist par excel lance, employing history, political science, geography, and geology as he explores his diverse topics.  Where else can a reader learn about such a conglomeration of stories?  He begins his journey by describing a flight over the Pacific beginning in Hawaii and immediately provides a history of the international dateline and the importance of this massive ocean on our daily lives.  The blue expanse of the Pacific dominates the planet and encompasses one-third of the earth’s surface and forty-five percent of the planet’s surface waters.  Despite its beauty and hidden treasures Winchester describes how the Pacific has been a dumping ground throughout modern history.  America and its allies have conducted nuclear tests in the Marshall and Gilbert Islands among other locations.  Biological testing has contaminated numerous islands and two million gallons of Agent Orange are stored near the Johnson Atoll Islands and rockets carrying atomic weapons have exploded in the region.  What has been created is an ecological nightmare in many places.  It is a shame as Winchester correctly points out that “the Pacific Ocean is the inland sea of tomorrow’s world,” much in the same way the Mediterranean Sea was in the Ancient world, and the Atlantic Ocean was for the modern world.  Therefore improving our knowledge of the ocean and preserving it as best we can is so important.

Winchester concentrates his narrative from 1950 to 2014 as he describes the Pacific Ocean as an “atomic ocean” because of all the nuclear testing.  The narrative of events that he presents in each chapter seem unrelated, but taken as a whole we witness an important history of the Pacific.  Winchester’s first self-contained chapter describes the story of the Bikini Islands and the effects of the testing of the hydrogen bomb.  He then moves on to the invention of the transistor radio in the 1960s and its impact on society.  Winchester then introduces us to the film Gidget as an introduction to the importance of surfing and the industry it spawned to the Pacific culture.  We next meet the “hermit kingdom” of North Korea and revisit the Pueblo Affair of 1968 and other incidents that make the Pyongyang government so dangerous, even today.  Those interested in Australia will visit her history and her evolution from a backward, racist society to a more enlightened one in the 1970s and its reversion to its former “Crocodile Dundee” reputation after 1989 as it can’t seem to make up its mind as to whether it wants to be a Pan Pacific version of Canada and the United States or a backward mulish and racist country that cannot decide if it wants to accept non-whites as immigrants for their country.  Another issue that is extremely important for Australia is its approach to its coral reefs that have been damaged and are threatened with disappearance sooner than scientists ever imagined.  As Winchester aptly points out, the Australian government must decide what is more important, mining interests or the natural ecology of its coastline.

(Mt. Pitubo eruption in the Philippines on June 15, 1991)

Winchester dissects weather patterns, natural resources, plant life, tectonic mayhem, ecology, i.e.; describing areas of the Pacific as “garbage gyres,” through various discoveries and how they affect us. Of course, no history of the Pacific could be complete without a discussion of China’s evolution into a major economic and military power and what that means for the future of the Pacific region and the planet in general.  This evolution is reported in pure Winchesteresque manner as the author relates the Mount Pitubo volcanic eruption in the Philippines on June 15, 1991, the second largest volcanic eruption of the last century, to the decline of the American naval presence in the Pacific to the emergence of the Chinese goal of projecting a deep blue water navy.  The eruption resulted in the loss of the Subic Bay Naval and Clark Airforce bases in the region and created a military vacuum that the Chinese have been eager to fill.  Winchester describes numerous examples of how the Chinese have projected their newly acquired naval power in the South China Sea, the Yellow Sea, and the East China Sea and what it has meant to its Asian neighbors and has resulted in a number of close encounters with American ships and planes.

(the author, Simon Winchester)

There are so many interesting and insightful tidbits that Winchester puts forth in the narrative, that readers of many different interests will be satiated.  The role of the Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs and President Truman’s decision to allow thermonuclear testing in the Pacific in 1950 and its implication for our world is most important.  Winchester’s descriptions of the Marshallese people and the destruction of their culture is never talked about by historians. As a young boy I used to listen to New York Yankee baseball games on a small Sony transistor radio under my pillow never thinking about how it got there.  The chapter on Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka and their discoveries that morphed into the Sony Corporation is fascinating as the consumer electronics industry that was born in Tokyo is detailed and finally explains what was hidden under my pillow for many baseball calendars.  With the transistor radio in hand Winchester moves on to the art of surfing.  Known as “wave gliding” for over a century Winchester describes how the release of an “unexceptional film” in conjunction with the discovery of new materials created the polyurethane surf board that took a Polynesian invention and transformed it into a worldwide sport and industry.  Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the book is Winchester’s discussion of the relationship between the creation of the 38trh parallel after World War II separating North and South Korea, the seizure of the USS Pueblo, and the sinking of the RMS Queen Elizabeth and how their intertwining leads the reader to the explanation of the end of the colonization of Hong Kong and its emergence under Chinese control in 1997.  The Alvin, a three person submersible is described as it allowed scientists from Woods Hole, MA to locate many of the most significant deep-seas structures and assisted in the undersea mapping of the Pacific’s mid-ocean range system causing armies of geophysicists to uncover amazing discoveries.  Along the way Winchester introduces us to many inventors, political figures, scientists, and everyday people that have impacted our daily lives, yet most of us will have never run across them.  These and many other aspects of the book, particularly Winchester’s discussion of the interplay between Polynesian culture and the west will provide hours of entertainment and thought for any reader.

Simon Winchester not only is an excellent social scientist, he is a wonderful stylist and his writing is very easy to digest as your eyes fly across the pages.  PACIFIC is a fascinating work of many social sciences and is the type of book that should produce a wide audience, I give it five stars!