BY SEAN CLARK
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Author: Holger Jorgensen and Jean Lester
Holger Jorgensen is apparently a known name in Alaska. He is half-white, half-Native (Eskimo), and over his career accumulated–by his own estimate–about 35,000 hours in a variety of planes. Which is a lot. Alaska as Jorgy describes it was a bit of a frontier, with long stretches of tundra and wilderness connecting villages and small mines. This book is full of anecdotes told by the venerable pilot, and they combine to create an interesting depiction of Alaska’s development during the 20th century.
Jorgy’s tales are interesting, especially if you’re into planes. I’m not really, but I found a lot to like, especially when he details the difference between different plane models, and how he handled them differently in the cockpit. Some of the stories touch on historical and cultural relevance. I found the stories of his boyhood as a half-native living with a native mother to be some of the best parts in the book. Well, except for this story about a flight full of reindeer, which is the craziest thing I’ve read in a while (the quote’s a bit long, but trust me, it’s worth it):
All of a sudden at about 2,500 feet, a couple of hooves appeared on the pedestal, knocking the mixtures and throttle and props all out of sync. We’ve got a four-legged visitor…So right away Warren grabbed his .357 magnum handgun that he had there. I said, “No, you can’t use that. We can’t do any shooting in here, we might shoot a fuel line, an oil line, or a hydraulic line. We can’t do that.” I had my hunting knife with me and I handed it to him and told him he was going to have to slit the animal’s throat. He gave me a kind of sorry look and said, “I can’t do that” I said, “You better if you want to stay alive. There are six or seven right behind this one and if they start coming in here you start slitting throats.” Right away he decided he would rather live than die, so he slit the throat of the reindeer and hot blood shot all over. Now we/ve got blood all up in the cockpit freezing into the instrument panel, blood all over me,blood all over him. He did a good job on slitting the reindeer’s throat, it dropped right to the floor after shooting two gallons of blood all over…It is not often reindeer are hauled on airplanes and when we landed at Goose Bay on the north shore of Cook Inlet, lo and behold here is Channel 2 TV station with all of their cameras waiting to get on board. I said, “We can’t let them on board. We’ve got a dead reindeer up here and we’ve got blood all over everything.”
Unfortunately, the book has little structure, and less background. Lester takes the anecdotes dictated to her and sorts them by subject (Fire at Galbraith Lake, Working for the State, UFOs) rather than following any chronology. Time flits about too much here, and thus it’s hard to piece a timeline together. At times, this allows some things to be skipped over without nearly enough attention. The most glaring example? Jorgy tells us that he sometimes went on three-day benders, and his alcoholism was severe and lasted took ten years of his life. That seems like a pretty big deal for a book about a pilot, but it only gets two pages and a few off-handed mentions. In evading sore subjects, this becomes less a biography than it is a rap session or extended interview.
On that note, I wish this book had told me what the hell makes Jorgy so legendary in the first place. He’s from Alaska; he put a lot of hours into flying; he oversaw several different eras of aviation in Alaska. But he drops a lot of names in the book, and some would seem to have had similar accomplishments. Is it because he’s half-native that he’s deserving of a book and they aren’t? Racism is touched upon in here, but I was never led to believe it was very grave, mainly because it never proved an impediment to Jorgy. So the occasion for the book is unclear. Jorgy dictated the chapters through interviews, and it makes sense that he doesn’t contextualize himself, as he seems rather humble, but Lester could certainly have done a better job setting the stage for the biography. Each chapter does have an epigraph or prologue somewhat relevant to the topic at hand, but they all lean toward character testimonials, and rarely–if ever–present any facts about what he did worth remembering.
I should note, there are pictures included in this text, which is laid out in an attractive way to accommodate them and the occasional footnote. It’s not the most economical typesetting though, so while it’s good they used recycled paper to bind this, a lot of space (and paper) is wasted. There are a few too many family photos, but most of the pictures offer some relation to whatever topic is being discussed, like, say a DC-3. The settings and backgrounds were my favorite part, because the sparse Alaskan wilderness is unlike anything else I’ve seen.
Jorgy is an enjoyable book, and it’s perfect for Alaskan schoolchildren, and anyone into aviation history or trivia. It’s not really a pick-up-and-read-at-Borders affair, but if you are the type to pick up a book like this, you won’t be wasting your time.
Similar Reads: Max Perkins, Editor of Genius (Berg)