L. Ron Hubbard's Alaska Adventure
His long winter in Ketchikan
By June Allen
January 19, 2005
It was back in 1940 that L. Ron Hubbard blew into town, literally, and because of a need for serious and costly repairs to his boat, wasn't able to sail out again for months! He was best known at that time as a pulp fiction author, and probably even he didn't imagine that one day he would become famous as the founder of what he dubbed a new, scientific religion -- Scientology. But he was blessed with good looks, natural charm, a vivid imagination, a gift for story-telling, and an enormous ego that would ease his way through life except at the very end of it.
Years later Hubbard grandiosely dubbed his unanticipated Ketchikan stay as just one leg of an "Alaskan Radio Experimental Expedition." Hubbard wrote several rather romanticized and semi-fictionalized accounts of these far north experiences; he also elaborated on the reasons for the Alaskan "expedition." Among other things, he had an interest in what today is called "white noise," the suspicious static that so annoyed radio listeners. On a more noble level, the Alaska experiment, he said, was to "augment his knowledge of more cultures - the Tlingit, the Haida and the Aleut Indians of Alaska" -- an ethnological study with emphasis on the universal Great Flood myth.
It was on Friday, August 31, 1940, that he tied up his ailing sloop at Thomas Basin and found his way to the office of the town's daily newspaper, the Ketchikan Chronicle. The following day this article appeared:
"Capt. L. Ron Hubbard, author and world traveler, arrived in Ketchikan in company with his wife aboard the vest pocket yacht, Magician. His purpose in coming to Alaska was two-fold, one to win a bet and another to gather material for a novel of Alaska salmon fishing.
"According to Captain Hubbard, several associates maintained it would be impossible for him to sail a vessel as small as the Magician, which is a 27-foot auxiliary sloop, to Alaska. Knowing the smallness of the boats which take this route, Captain Hubbard covered their bets and now that he has arrived, will have the satisfaction of collecting.
"The trip," said Hubbard, "was not so difficult even though we ran into heavy weather in Queen Charlotte Sound, Straits of Georgia and Dixon Entrance. We came into Revillagigedo channel in the dark and ran with the wind screaming in our rigging [and then] there were lights, certain and well planned, and by golly, it was just like walking up Broadway. Good charts, good lights, good channels." And the story goes on to report that the captain expected to remain in Ketchikan for several days.
L. Ron Hubbard was just 29 when he arrived in Ketchikan, a handsome young man with a cleft chin, sandy red hair and a natty yachtsman wardrobe which usually featured a trademark ascot tied jauntily around his neck, as well as his signature captain's cap. He was a charismatic story-teller who claimed a private school education and blossoming success as an author.
The fact of the matter was that the dashing young adventurer's tired sloop, Magician, nicknamed "Maggie," had limped into Ketchikan after nothing much more dramatic than repeated failures of its engine. Hubbard found himself looking for work to support himself and his wife, Polly, until he had enough money to get his boat repaired so he could sail south. He found an interesting job in Ketchikan and spent the rest of his time trying to sell enough stories to pay for costly engine repairs.
But in the meantime, facing a cold and rainy winter in the little town on Tongass Narrows, L. Ron Hubbard went to work as an announcer for Jimmy Britton at KGBU radio, "The Voice of Alaska." (With a change of ownership, the KGBU call letters would be changed two years later to KTKN.)
Young L. Ron Hubbard was to host his own program called "Mail Buoy." At the top of the hour on a crisp September day, the newcomer launched his maiden radio broadcast in Ketchikan. Station-owner Jimmy Britton's well-remembered and breathless, asthmatic voice grandly intoned over the airwaves: "KGBU Radio brings you the 'Mail Buoy,' a program especially designed for Alaskan boatmen. It is the hope of this station that the exchange of information regarding the sea and ships will be found of benefit to those who wish to brush up on their calling, to those who wish to study the fine art of fighting the sea, and to those old-timers who can help the world to remember how to make all things shipshape and Bristol-fashion by keeping close tally on the data contained in this presentation."
After a deep breath or two, Britton continued in his unique voice, "Capt. L. Ron Hubbard, whose sailoring and engineering and writing have carried his keels through the Seven Seas is here to command. Captain Hubbard, himself a marine authority, has taken every way of authenticating this material, checking it vigorously against the best known authorities. Questions sent to him in care of this station, if accompanied by a self-addressed, stamped envelope, will be answered either by mail or on the air free of charge.
Here now is Captain Hubbard. (a sound of four bells and a jingle).
Captain Hubbard's flowery introduction sounds suspiciously self-written. But he apparently began to catch the interest of his audience. His first program was titled "Handling Your Hull." Another was called "Anchors." All were of a maritime flavor.
Another one, interestingly, was called "Clearing the Airwaves." This program about static on the airwaves was to answer questions from listeners who asked about the annoying interference heard on Ketchikan's radios from chain-broadcast programming beamed up from Mercer Island's station KOL. Listeners were annoyed by what Hubbard called "crackling and hissing instead of throbbing and crooning," which occurred in spite of the KGBU purchase of "a 24-tube Super-Pro Receiver in the remote station at Mountain Point, plus the seven-mile telephone line" to the KGBU station. That modern station had been built just three years earlier at 526 Stedman Street.
Captain Hubbard blamed the static on not only Ketchikan's electrical appliances such as refrigerators and electric sewing machines for the interference but also blamed simple light switches being flicked on and off. But mostly, he said, the problem was from old crystal radio sets in boats in nearby Thomas Basin and elsewhere in town. These things, Hubbard pointed out on air, were in addition to KPU's "dirty power being pumped into Ketchikan homes." He added that New York's Con Edison was "strict and accurate about its power like any modern light plant that is strict."
Hubbard claimed great skill in many technical areas and years later embellished a story to claim that he used his radio-electrical savvy in direction-finding equipment to track down a source of local interference and static right there in Ketchikan! -- a trail that led to a Nazi spy who was captured by the FBI! (No official record is said to exist of such a capture.)
Eventually, after spreading his charm around the First City via the airwaves, he borrowed enough money from Ketchikan sources to repair his sloop and sail south. The major source of those borrowed funds was from the First National Bank - a loan of $350 (that would be $4,840.00 in today's dollars). A year and half later, receiving past-due notices and obviously annoyed, Hubbard mailed a letter to the bank to explain why he hadn't yet repaid that loan. It read, "Your are again informed that the reason for non-payment is the sharp decrease of pay which I was willing to take to help my country!"
Hubbard was at the time in the Naval Reserve and even though the dunning bills came via the U.S. Navy, he wrote creditors that, "the pay of my present rank is not the pay I received when I signed your note, and the condition of war, as I explained before, makes it very difficult for me to pay a few of the bills which were contracted prior to the war since all extra income is shut off."
Perhaps that debt situation colored L. Ron Hubbard's recollection of his stay in Ketchikan. His stories about those three short months in Ketchikan are as unrestrained as his imagination. Decades later, while teaching a class about Scientology, the religion's founder shared some of his remembrances of Ketchikan, Alaska:
"They have there in Ketchikan," he told his class, "the only stream in the world where the fish and the fishermen go up to spawn. It's a red-light district. It stretches up around the curve, a very beautiful little stream. But the buildings have trap doors - most of Ketchikan is built over water. The fishermen - it's mostly fishermen that come in there with any money - wear rather heavy rubber boots, and water gets into these boots rather quickly, and they go down rather fast. But when the police do find a fisherman drowned or floating there in the straits without anything in his pockets they look him over very carefully and say, 'Hmmm! Suicide!'"
Hubbard claimed to have learned and done many exciting things in his brief stay in Ketchikan, Alaska. And somehow, he never forgot the little town on Tongass Narrows and mentioned his experiences there often. Being also something of a musician, he is said to have written song lyrics set in Ketchikan called "Waterfront Empress." The worldwide web failed to locate those lyrics.
Who was this man, who began his career writing "amazing stories" for the pulp fiction market, this sailor, the founder of a new-age religion, this author not only of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health but of the best-selling science fiction novel Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000.
L. Ron Hubbard (the L stood for his grandfather's given name, Lafayette) was born in Nebraska March 13, 1911, to U.S. Navy officer Harry Ross Hubbard and Ledora May Hubbard. He attended George Washington University for two years, studying math and civil engineering. He demonstrated a fierce love of boats and the sea, and thus his arrival in Ketchikan 65 years ago. He served in the U.S. Navy during the years 1941-45, and received a disability pension at war's end.
He is said to have been interested in Freud and in hypnosis, and began writing his best-seller Dianetics, published in 1950. From that point he drew together loyal followers who in time founded the church of Scientology in 1954 - which became large, influential and wealthy. But wealth and the lengthy sea voyages of his later years did not improve L. Ron Hubbard's physical or mental health. He was involved in scandal and fights with the church he founded. And then L. Ron Hubbard died in California at age 74 on Jan. 24, 1986. His ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
But somehow, he never forgot those winter months in Alaska. Of all the places in the world that he had visited, Ketchikan would linger long in his memory. There was just something about the town. He didn't know what it was. But we do.
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