Cordova Chronicles: A blast from the past

The 1955 Valdez girls basketball team, which was later stranded here due to bad weather, enjoys sunshine in front of the Cordova Airlines office on Main Street. Photo courtesy of DeeDee Babich

One of the most rewarding aspects of writing Cordova Chronicles is the responses I sometimes receive from surprising sources. 

Thanks to the power of Facebook, The Cordova Times reaches far and wide, as is evidenced by the following e-mail from DeeDee Babich, who played for the Valdez girls basketball team back in the mid-’50s.

Hi Dick,

I came across the article you did in February on the Boy Scouts. I live in Gig Harbor, Washington, but thanks to Facebook, I saw it on a Valdez site. I lived in Valdez for three years when my dad managed the long shoring … 1952 to 1955 … before the tidal wave. Our home was next door to Jim Butcher and Jim Dieringer was a good friend, in fact we still keep in touch.

I have never been back and as I turn 80 today … am not sure I ever will, but your article was sure a blast from the past … in fact, I still have an old newspaper article of Jim Dieringer when he traveled around the country with the scouts.

Just for fun, here is a picture of the Valdez girls basketball team of 1955, with me leaning against the pole in the grey coat and my younger sister holding the daffodils. We were standing in front of the Cordova Airlines office in Cordova. Both boys and girls teams had flown to Cordova to play a game and had then been snowed in. My mother was the chaperone for the girls and was not happy about it all. We girls were finally flown out and according to one of the fellows on the team who I talked 50 years later, a fishing boat took the boys back home.

My three sons are all commercial salmon fishermen and one of the greatest joys of my life was having two of them start fishing out of Valdez … and … having a picture of my grandchildren stand on the spot where our home stood.

Keep writing, you never know whose lives youll touch.

DeeDee Babich

What a great letter and photo. The picture was taken on Main Street, and Cordova Airlines at that time was a going concern owned and operated by Merle “MudHole” Smith, who gained fame as an early bush pilot in this area by getting his small plane stuck in the mud and requiring a quite challenging recovery.

The airport at Mile 13, originally built by the Army in the early days of WWII, is named in his honor. Following the end of the war, Smith expanded Cordova Air to include surplus WWII DC-3s.

For many years, much of the air travel was done in these reliable workhorses, and it was always an adventure. In those days, Stan Kowalke and Ozzie Barry ran the ticket counter at the old Mile 13 Terminal, which is now utilized as the TSA office. When all the passengers were boarded, this duo would wheel out a large fire extinguisher and stand near the massive DC-3 engines as they smoked and spit flames while starting.

The 1964 CHS Pep Club, with Advisor Winifred Kaiser on the far left. Due to weather, several were stranded for four days in Valdez, with Fred Pettingill filling in as their chaperone. CHS Annual photo

After they were finally running smoothly, the pilot would wave out the window with a thumbs up, and taxi off. Every day was D-Day in those days.

Flight delays or cancellations were not uncommon, and not surprisingly, Valdez teams didn’t have a monopoly on getting weathered in. More than one Cordova squad ended up stuck in Valdez on basketball trips.

Its runway, surrounded by mountains and just below a glacier, was notorious for high winds and low ceilings.

I recall one trip to play the Buccaneers in which someone noticed a branch stuck in the landing gear as we disembarked after a particular bouncy approach.

The 1964 CHS Pep Club had one of the most famous lengthy stayovers. The Cordova boys had a red-hot squad that year, and Wolverine Fever was at a high pitch. For some reason, the teams were ferried over in small planes. On the return leg, the players and some of the Pep Club, including advisor Winifred Kaiser, made it back before the weather closed in.

The remainder of the Pep Club, which included my future wife Sue Ekemo, was stranded. Not to worry. Fred Pettingill, a hard-charging go-getter who ran Eyak Construction in Cordova, just happened to be in Valdez, so he was contacted to take over as chaperone until the weather improved.

For four days, Sue still remembers shyly tapping on the door to the Pinzon Bar to ask for meal money from Fred, who was busy killing time by playing pool and having a good old time with the boys. He would set aside his cue stick, stroll over, pull out a wad of bills, and give them however much they wanted.

Perhaps unknown to Sue was the historical significance of the Pinzon.

Back in May of 1944, one of the places her future father John Ekemo, who was born and raised in Valdez, began his courtship of a young nursing beauty freshly arrived all the way from Mississippi, was by inviting her to play pool at that very same pub.

A year later, John married May Hammett, who famously noted in an early letter back to her relatives in Jackson, that “whiskey flows in Valdez like buttermilk in Mississippi.”

Twenty years later, here was their oldest daughter knocking on the Pinzon door.

Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?

Thanks DeeDee.

You gotta love those Blasts from the Past.

Note: More tales of adventures like this can be found in Shellhorn’s books, Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes.

Previous articleVirtual music festival will raise food bank funds
Next articleDelay sought in plans for NPR-A development
Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes.