Sunday, February 7, 2016

Chuck Sassara's vivid account of Alaska flying, politics is a page-turner

Chuck Sassara’s Alaska: Propellers, Politics & People

 By Chuck Sassara; Constant Drummer Publishing; 2015; 178 pages; $20

Chuck Sassara stands with a North American Navion in the early 2000s, approximately 2004. Said Sassara, "North American Navion: 260 horsepower. I owned five of these big old rocking chairs, which were a little slow but sturdy, all in all a nice roomy flying machine." 
Chuck Sassara collection

On the second page of “Chuck Sassara’s Alaska,” the author slams his plane into the snow on the Anchorage side of Merrill Pass en route from Bethel. The incident, which occurred in 1976, left Sassara and his passenger unhurt but stranded for six days, unsure if they would be rescued.

They got out, of course, as can be evidenced 40 years later by the publication of this book and Sassara’s relentless promotional schedule. A longtime Alaskan who showed up here in the 1950s and made a name for himself as a pilot and airplane dealer -- as well as a member of the state Legislature -- this self-published memoir is a bit rickety at times, but there’s plenty of fun to be had reading it.

Sassara’s adventurous spirit appears genetic. As he explains in the early pages, his father was an orphan who stowed away to Europe as a child then headed for South America in his teens. Sassara’s mother took to her husband’s wayward lifestyle as well, and the author grew up traveling. The family lived in the Panama at one point and moved about the U.S., too.

After high school, he worked and studied in California, where he met his soon-to-be wife, Ann. In 1955, the couple decamped to Alaska, driving a Volkswagen Bus up the Alaska Highway at a time when the road north was a potholed mess. They arrived in Anchorage, where Sassara took a job as a gopher for Pacific Northern Airlines.

Given his upbringing, it’s not surprising Sassara found his spiritual calling in the air and his professional direction in self-employment. Within a short time, he was running a business near Merrill Field, buying and selling cars, trucks and planes while bush piloting out of the same office. Meanwhile, he and his wayward parents, who had traveled north with him, purchased a lodge on Big Lake -- at that time still a fairly remote spot.

Seat-of-the-pants methods

A good part of this book centers on the latter part of Alaska’s territorial period as well as the early years of statehood, a time when there were far fewer people, not a lot of rules, and things were often accomplished through seat-of-the-pants methods. There are some great stories about remote flights and the severely rustic conditions many Alaskans welcomed. 

The subtitle of this book is “Propellers, Politics & People,” which more or less summarizes the order of attention Sassara gives to his main themes. This is first and foremost a pilot’s memoir, and the lion’s share of it is given over to his love of airplanes. 

People, meanwhile, garner more space than politics. Sassara offers sketches of many who passed through his life, from the obscure to the well known. Among the obscure is his friend Jimmy Burns, a fellow pilot damned with perpetual bad luck. The stories of his mishaps and near-misses are quite funny, although the laughter ends when his bad luck finally prevails. 

At the other end of the spectrum is former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, with whom Sassara served in the Alaska Legislature during the 1960s. While from opposing parties, the two shared the bond of being in Alaska at a time when working for the common good was valued above partisan loyalties. They became close friends. 

Politics get the shortest play here, and that’s a shame. Sassara spent several years in the Legislature during the 1960s, and his observations of the time would be valuable for those interested in Alaska’s political history. His firsthand knowledge of how issues were resolved during that era would be interesting to read about now. He should consider revisiting this period through articles or blog posts, especially given Alaska’s current dire fiscal situation, which mirrors the state’s early days.

The latter part of the book speeds through the '70s and beyond. The highlight is a chapter about his son Charlie’s winter ascent of Denali. Charlie Sassara is world-renowned climber and that trip turned tragic. 

The account gives readers cause to sympathize with Sassara’s late wife, Ann. With a bush pilot husband and a mountain-climbing son, she must have endured many sleepless nights. She was no slouch herself, though. Sassara writes, “She was at ease carrying her own custom-made 30.06 high powered rifle looking for a moose to plug, or a bear to chase off the porch. This woman was always ready for an adventure.” As Sassara notes, it was a long way from the streets of Hollywood, where she spent her youth. The two were married 58 years before she died.

Like tales told over beers

As a self-published work “Chuck Sassara’s Alaska” jumps around a bit, but it could be argued that the wrong editor would have toned down the author's voice, and that’s part of this book’s charm. He’s pretty colorful and funny with his descriptions. 

At one point he mentions seagulls, “always ready to open their bomb-bay doors and drop a load of excrement on the people below.” Elsewhere he dismisses the Stinson L5 because its “useful load was limited to 325 pounds, which amounted to a fat pilot and about six gallons of fuel.” Lines like this fly off the pages. Chapters of the book are like tales told over beers.

Unlike many self-published writers, Sassara has taken the time to edit his text carefully, so the misspellings and grammatical disasters often endemic to such works are absent. In an age when even major publishing houses issue books littered with errors, this is appreciated.

For Alaska aviation junkies, “Chuck Sassara’s Alaska” is a must, and for casual readers there’s plenty here as well. This one kept me up past my bedtime thinking, “Just a couple more pages,” and suddenly I was finished and wondering how it got so late.  

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