For the past six months Sheldon's most expensive plane, a $45,000 special Cessna conversion, has been lying upside down at 8,750 feet on the Susitna Glacier of Mt. Hayes. Late last June Sheldon had safely landed the Cessna with a Japanese climber aboard and was finishing his run-out when a squirrelly blast of wind flipped the plane onto its back. The next day, as if he had only dropped a few dollars at bingo, he went about his business, ferrying customers here and there in another plane. In Alaska it pays to keep cool.
In 1938, at the age of 17, Sheldon left his parents and went to Alaska, looking for some greater challenge than his home state, Wyoming, could offer. He got his first job in an Anchorage dairy, working, as he recalls, 25 hours a day, nine days a week. Despairing of that, he headed north on the Alaska Railroad as far as his cash would take him—to Talkeetna. In the next two years he nearly starved or froze as a woodcutter, gold miner, construction worker and trapper, but by the time the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor he was making good money on a surveying crew in the frantic airport building boom. Since any man who could both think and work in subzero weather was invaluable, he got several military deferments at his boss' request and could have had more, but he wanted to get into the war as a forward observer in the sort of small craft he had learned to fly in his spare time. He was accepted for the Civilian Pi lot Training program, but like many others he got caught in the whimsical workings of the military and ended up as tail gunner on a B-17 in Europe. He flew 26 missions, surviving one terrible crash when his bomber, limping back, hit an English oak tree square on and failed to go through it like the proverbial straw.
After the war Sheldon hoped to buy a plane with his accrued pay and become a bush pilot, but he was nearly two years getting to it. When he first applied for one of their craft, the Piper Aircraft Corporation had a book of back orders the size of a Montgomery Ward catalog. He finally got a war-surplus machine and flew it to Alaska, settling in Fairbanks, a far busier hub than Talkeetna. He flew across the Alaska Range to Talkeetna one day simply to visit and has been there ever since. At the time Talkeetna had a good strip but no resident bush pilot. In the land around Talkeetna there were still trappers futilely trapping despite the declining market. There were still miners full of hope. There were sportsmen after game and fish. There were homesteaders, geologists, surveyors, road gangs and mountaineers—all needing air service.
Although, thanks to the return of Sheldon, Talkeetna can boast of the most versatile bush-pilot operation in all Alaska, the town itself is not much more than it ever was. Forty years ago about 150 people and 200 dogs lived within the informal limits of Talkeetna. There are still about 150 people around, but the number of resident dogs is way down. The slant eye of the husky still shows in the mongrels wandering on the main street, but the great sled teams are gone. Today the growl of the snowmobile is heard in the land. Vintage Detroit cars now rot in the weeds, abandoned like the dog huts and notched-log cabins whose roofs have held the weight of 40 winters. The new highway being built between Anchorage and Fairbanks bypasses Talkeetna, sparing it the embarrassment of becoming needlessly involved in the present. The town has no mayor, no taxes, no government. Its one parking meter in front of Frank Moennikes' Fairview Inn does not work. Some of the hippies who have gone into the bush around Talkeetna to escape the trammels of modern living do not get their welfare checks until two weeks after they are posted.
Although Talkeetna, by choice, is only loosely connected to the red-hot present, it has a cosmopolitan flair. Emery Kunkel, the postmaster, once served as a railroad troubleshooter in Europe. Frank Moennikes packs up and goes back to his native Westphalia every now and again. Ray Genet, one of the finest Swiss mountain guides, now headquarters in Talkeetna. "Evil Alice" Powell, proprietress of the excellent Talkeetna Motel, drove her own Stutz Bearcat at the age of 14 and made her debut at the Waldorf in New York a few years later.
Sheldon's hangar just off the main street is called the Sheldon Sheraton because in the busy weeks of summer mountain climbers of five countries are often encamped in it, waiting their turn to be flown onto a glacier. One stretch of the East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, 60 miles from town, is known as the Talkeetna International Airport because Sheldon and Mike Fisher land so many foreign Alpinists there. Seven miles west of this so-called International Airport, on the opposite flank of Mt. McKinley, there is now a small chalet known as the Sheldon International Hotel. When the state of Alaska recently opened up acreage for recreational and commercial development, many of its citizens grabbed up five acres of moose and mosquito land. Sheldon is the only one who asked for five acres of a glacier. In his hangar in Talkeetna he built an octagonal chalet 36 feet across, then disassembled it and flew it piece by piece to its present site in a vast amphitheater of the Ruth Glacier at 5,850 feet. When you rent Sheldon's glacier estate for a day or a week, you are miles from the madding crowd, but not necessarily alone. In the middle of the night a gang of mountaineers who have finished an assault on Mt. McKinley may pile into the mountain house with you.
Over the years Sheldon has been offered aviation jobs where the flying is easier, the hours regular and the pay good. "In a year," he says, "I fly for a thousand different bosses and enjoy it more than I ever would flying for one boss by the clock. Flying out of Talkeetna, I think I have something special to offer. Why should I go somewhere else to become what everybody already is?"