Alaska stuck on duct tape: Last Frontier was in the know long before war on terrorism

ANCHORAGE — While Tom Ridge was sending a ripple of code-orange panic through the Lower 48 and urging everyone to stock up on duct tape in case of a terrorist attack, people in The Last Frontier were having a good chuckle.

Anchorage had just held its annual Duct Tape Ball.

Performers at the Fly By Night Club have been playing rolls of duct tape as musical instruments for 16 years.

Pilots use the stuff to repair airplane wings. Dog mushers stick it on their faces to prevent frostbite. And duct tape — to the surprise of no one in Alaska — has its adherents in the criminal ranks.

In 1994, when authorities found the body of Joe Vogler, leader of the state's secessionist Independence Party, it was wrapped in a blue tarp and bound with duct tape.

No home, car, snowmobile or boat is without it.

"Duct tape is what built Alaska," said local filmmaker Laura Bliss Spaan, who is working on a "duc-umentary" titled "Sticking it out in Alaska."

"It's what holds us together."

Broken headlight? Ripped parka? A bear chewed the wing off your Cessna?

The sturdy adhesive is the one solid answer to almost any Alaska problem.

Why use a suitcase when you can use an "Alaskan Samsonite," as it's known here — a cardboard box wrapped in duct tape. (Or you could have before Ridge and his Department of Homeland Security took over the airports.)

Why use a razor when you can stick and rip? Want to bring your freshly caught halibut on the plane? Simple: Styrofoam, ice and duct tape.

Windshield gone? Buy some plastic sheeting (another Homeland Security favorite but known locally as Visqueen) and — you guessed it — duct tape.

"We use duct tape to hold things together that probably should be discarded," noted Matt Berman, an economics professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.

All of which helps explain why the Wal-Mart in Wasilla, a city of 5,500 north of Anchorage, sold more Duck brand duct tape (8,600 rolls) than any other Wal-Mart in the U.S. last year, says the tapemaker, Henkel Consumer Adhesives, which sells 46 percent of the nation's duct tape.

So when Ridge advised Americans to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting in case of a terrorist attack, Alaskans were befuddled. Would you need the government to tell you to buy toothpaste?

Rich Owens, who has used duct tape to repair everything from a gash in his boat's hull to a hole in his salmon net, couldn't believe the TV images from the East Coast. A woman being interviewed hadn't heard of duct tape, complaining her local office-supply store didn't have any.

"It's a HARDWARE item, lady!" Owens recalls thinking in frustration.

Along the line, duct tape became more than just a handy item for the mend-anything breed of individualist inhabiting Alaska.

In a place that mixes stunning wilderness and vistas with bizarre humor and kitsch, duct tape is a cultural symbol.

The Fly By Night Club, which serves up wacky musical comedy and a full Spam menu, was the first to elevate the drab, little roll to musical instrument in the mid-1980s, said the club's owner, known as Mr. Whitekeys.

For live performances, the club's duct-tape musician stands at the microphone and rips the tape to a particular rhythm, making a kke kke kke sound. The fall show featured a banjo-vs.-duct tape duel.

For the Christmas show, a club organizer built a 4½-by-2-foot instrument dubbed an acoustic wave golden tone stereosonic ductaphone and played heartwarming renditions of "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

Black-tie event with sticky twist

Then, four years ago, the Duct Tape Ball arrived when a group of young women decided to establish an annual banquet to raise money for local charities, a black-tie event with a sticky twist.

They thought about using blue tarps, another Alaska staple covering some piece of junk in nearly every yard, "but we wanted to keep it really classy," organizer Melissa Anderson said. "We didn't want it to look like a storage yard."

Early last month, 260 people gathered in duct-tape skirts, dresses, tuxedos, ties, hats and jewelry. Did you know duct tape came in designer colors — camouflage, red, green and hot pink? There were duct-tape animal costumes, in keeping with this year's theme of Safari Chic, and a host of items for auction, including a 10-foot giraffe, hot-pink flamingos and a bear rug — all made of duct tape — and a ductmobile, a truck dressed in duct tape.

With the little roll now affixed to popular culture, Spaan (license plate DUCT8P) began to elevate it to a high art with her films celebrating Alaska junk and duct tape as symbols of a vanishing frontier civilization.

In one of her documentaries, a man challenges her contention that duct tape has 1,001 uses. Claiming there are 1,002, he leans over, pulls off an artificial lower leg held together in parts with duct tape and holds it up for the camera. (Spaan, holding the camera, did not know this was going to happen.)

"Duct tape is near and dear to the hearts and broken parts of true Alaskans," she said.

Orchestra plays duct tape

The Anchorage Symphony, looking for short films to set to music two years ago, chose one of Spaan's works, an homage to duct tape called "Wrapsody in Silver."

"I bought a half-dozen rolls of duct tape and started experimenting with the various sounds you could make by pulling them at different speeds," recalled the symphony's music director, Randall Craig Fleischer, who wrote the score.

Orchestra members put down their instruments, picked up rolls of duct tape and played them, in the end wrapping themselves in duct tape in a free improvisation.

"As you can imagine, everyone was in hysterics," Fleischer said.

Last year, one of Spaan's documentaries, which includes a pilgrimage to a duct-tape factory in North Carolina, was chosen as part of a performance-art series. Spaan handed rolls of duct tape to the audience, members of which played their rolls to the Alaska flag song.

"The audience literally had a roll in it," she said. "Now half the town knows how to play duct tape."

About the only thing they don't do with duct tape in Alaska is eat it. "We have Spam," explained retired teacher and bush pilot Ken Smith, referring to another Alaska favorite.

In a place where people are not particularly fond of government, even Ridge is receiving applause — just for his association with duct tape.

"The man's a genius," Mr. Whitekeys said. "He found a way to combat a high-technology war with duct tape. ... For once, our government is doing something right."