Among Alaskans, devoted adherents

Versatility: In the 49th state, hundreds of uses are found for duct tape, from making music to fixing airplane wings.

March 02, 2003|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Way up here, 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 on the last frontier were having a good chuckle.

Anchorage had just held its annual Duct Tape Ball.

Performers at the city's 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. Criminals use it to tie up victims. No home, car, snowmobile or boat is without it.

"Duct tape is what built Alaska," says 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 Alaskan 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 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? Get some plastic sheeting (another Homeland Security favorite but known here as Visqueen) and - you guessed it - duct tape.

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

All of which helps explain why the Wal-Mart in Wasilla, a city of 5,500 just north of Anchorage, sold more Duck brand duct tape (8,600 rolls) than any other Wal-Mart in the country last year, says the tape maker, 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, people here 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. A woman being interviewed hadn't heard of duct tape. She was complaining that her local office supply store didn't have any.

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

Somewhere along the line, duct tape became more than just a handy item for the mend-anything breed of individualist who settles in Alaska.

In a place that mixes stunning wilderness and vistas with bizarre humor and kitsch, duct tape has become 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, says 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.

Ductaphone concert

For the Christmas show, one of the club's organizers built a 4 1/2 -by-2-foot instrument dubbed an acoustic wave golden tone stereosonic ductaphone. Rolls of duct tape rest on hand-cranks that pass over a wooden bridge mounted on 12-foot-long resonating tubes, creating a "rooomph" sound. The ductaphone played heartwarming renditions of "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

"It's one of the great musical instruments of all time," Mr. Whitekeys says.

Then, four years ago, the Duct Tape Ball arrived on the scene 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 Alaskan staple covering some piece of junk in nearly every yard, "but we wanted to keep it really classy," says organizer Melissa Anderson. "We didn't want it to look like a storage yard."

This year, in early February, 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, Laura Bliss 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 that 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.)

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