When disaster doesn’t strike

At a bit of a loss for a current blog entry today, I (Arlene) decided to tell one of my favorite stories from working here.

I’ve read (Terry Pratchett) that opera works on the catastrophe curve: everything that could go wrong miraculously fails to do so.  We had one of those moments in February ’08.

It was a Thursday.  I’d been the head of A&SC for about 8 months.  I was actually out of town.  In Kodiak, on a consulting job.  And half-way through the day I got a call from Kathy Bouska who starts out with “Um, we had an incident today.”  So pondering my tenure file’s passage through the university administration and a little worried at anything that might be described as an “incident” which required a phone call, I requested details.  It goes something like this, and I won’t identify any of the other participants by name, but you can probably figure out most of them.

Kathy was unpacking some of the Atwood family papers.  And came across a container.  A tube with metal ends, super-duper heavy-duty cardboard.  A little less than 12″ high, about 6″ in radius.  And it’s got some writing on it, looks like some sort of a part number or such, and also it says “live ammunition.”  So Kathy sets it down, gently, and heads for the phone.  And calls her husband, who is in the military.  Who tells her to call the university police.  She does, and she also interrupts a meeting the Dean of the Library is having with the Building Manager (is that serendipity?) and informs the two of them.

Pretty soon the reading room is filled with people.  Archivists, librarians, police, and this other guy.  Kathy doesn’t recognize him, he arrived after the police did, and he’s not wearing a uniform or anything.  He walks up to the tube and picks it up and starts to twist it open.  I’d like to note that at this point, the archivists scatter.  Headed for walls, desks, anything to provide a little cover. Everybody else stays put.  After some ominous squeaking noises, the tube pops open and the unidentified guy pulls out a Howitzer shell.  Shiny brass howitzer shell.  With no live ammunition inside.  But it is etched with a lot of writing.  Turns out to be one of the casings for one of the howitzers that was shot off at the Alaska Statehood celebration in 1959.  And some of them were saved and etched with a dedicatory passage and given to people involved in the Statehood effort, like Bob Atwood.  A very cool artifact indeed.

Now, I had a lot of things to say about this incident at the time, most of them I won’t repeat here.  But I will say a couple of things from a little over a year’s distance.  Archivists: any time you see something marked “live ammo” in the collections you not only have my permission to scatter, but you have my utmost pleas to do so, though I’d encourage more distance than 10 ft and a little more cover than non-load-bearing walls.  And can the bomb squad guys please wear insignia?  And maybe not open up stuff like this in my reading room? Because, believe it or not, that’s actually been the longest-lasting effect of this whole event.  Before this, it was the Archives’ reading room, or perhaps our reading room.  But that day, when Kathy called, my response was “who did what in my reading room?”  It suddenly was MINE.  I’m still trying to shake it.  I haven’t yet.  I’m doing better, but it still occasionally sneaks out unawares.  So if you catch me calling it my reading room, please let me know.  Oh, and the Chancellor signed my tenure file anyhow the following June, so no harm done there.

A personally engraved, UNLOADED Howitzer shell.

One thought on “When disaster doesn’t strike

  1. Aren’t you happy that when we call you while you are out of the office, it’s never about live ammo?!

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