A story to tell

Ken Waldman fiddles on the Blue Mountain Community College lawn between sessions at the Arts & Culture Festival.<br><i>Staff photo by Kathy Aney</i>

Before Ken Waldman's plane crashed, he was composing a poem in his head about the impossibly white world he saw outside the cockpit window. The next moment, the plane hit a snowy Alaskan hilltop and he and the pilot sat dazed and bloody.

Waldman, Alaska's fiddling poet, described his memorable plane crash during the Blue Mountain Community College Arts & Culture Festival. He spiced his talk with poetry readings and fiddle tunes.

Visibility the day of the acccident was near zero in the fog, gauzy white and dense. The former professor marveled at the calm of his 20-something pilot, who steered the cargo plane with confidence low over the ocean and frozen terrain. Waldman was headed to Nome, Alaska, from his latest poetry gig in the far-flung village of Brevig Mission.

The Anchorage resident let his mind wander, composing lines of poetry. In the next instant, the plane clipped a fog-shrouded hill and went down like a bird hitting a patio window.

"My body jolted," Waldman said. "My head slammed against the instrument panel."

They sat, shocked and whiplashed after the plane came to rest in the silence. Warm blood seeped from his injured forehead. He asked the pilot, "Am I dying?"

"I've seen worse injuries in hockey players," Waldman recalls the pilot saying.

The young pilot, panic stricken, offered to "run to town for help."

"The guy was in tennis shoes," Waldman said. "He didn't know where he was."

Waldman assured him that people on snow machines would be along shortly. He soothed the pilot by reading poetry from books in his pack.

Less than an hour later, men in snowmobiles arrived to transport the pair to town where doctors put 100 stitches in Waldman's forehead and treated him for a concussion.

Waldman embraces the experience as writers and poets tend to do - grateful for the wealth of material it brought and his distinction as "the only plane-wreck-surviving Alaskan fiddling poet on the planet."

Strangely, one of Waldman's close friends killed himself on the day of Waldman's crash. Dave Rector, a fiddle and guitar player, took the bread he was baking out of the oven, walked out to the woods and shot himself. Friends later shared the bread at his funeral.

"He was the guy that died that day," Waldman said.

He read "Dave's Ghost," a poem written in his friend's honor.

Several poems chronicling the plane wreck and its aftermath appear in Waldman book, "Nome Poems." The collection of poems is one of six books and eight CDs Waldman has produced during his career as Alaska's wandering minstrel.

During the past nine years, Waldman has wandered around the lower 48, stopping frequently in New York City where his girlfriend lives and Lafayette, La., to play Cajun music and stay with friends. His plane crash continues to permeate his poems and his music.

After the crash, Waldman babied his bruised brain for a couple weeks, enjoying notoriety in places like Nome's Anchor Tavern. The alehouse swelled with people attending the Iditarod, a sled dog race that ends in Nome.

"I was just one more sideshow," he said.

He described his popularity in a poem:

"Old-timers greeted me by name.

I saw how others watched, and whispered.

I let drunks touch me for luck."

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