Tales of Kidnap Money
The True Adventures of Mark Ransom

December 26, 2006
"It seems the only thing I ever did better than accrue debt was accumulate life experiences. Within those experiences - within anyone's life experiences, I'm convinced - are interesting stories. This book is an assortment of mine..."

With that paragraph, the reader embarks on a trip way off the beaten path: through the snowy backwoods of Alaska by dogsled and floatplane, to wrestling sharks in the South Pacific, to near brushes with death - once in a dryer, once in a helicopter - and around the world in each direction.

My cousin Mark presented me with his autobiography-in-progress (working title: Tales of Kidnap Money, a play on the family name) in a gesture of openness and honesty, which are the hallmarks of the narrative itself. Mark's tales brought old family legends to life and I saw that "wander lust" is a family heritage that has been fully realized in Mark. He has traveled around the world a couple of times, has visited or lived in 22 foreign countries and at least as many states and U.S. territories. But today, at this point in his journey, we see that there was a destination all along.

This is true of all wanderers, when their journeys are at last mapped.

Our forebears' experiences prove my point. The Ransoms were comfortably established in the American colonies when 19-year-old Charles Ransom struck out alone for the untamed west. He survived to raise a family on the wind-swept plains of western Nebraska, and on a cold December night in 1900 Charles' and Lizzie's son Bert was born. A wanderer himself, Bert grew up to be a rough rider and cowboy, and our granddaddy.

Ransom Family photo Meanwhile, fresh from Ireland the young O'Bannon brothers immediately turned their steps toward the mines and railroads in the western mountains. James became a gandy dancer (maintenance man) for the Union Pacific, living on the move as the railroad crew slowly inched west at the head of a lengthening, continent-spanning steel trail. He married the young Irish lass who cooked for the crew and in 1897, in a sod-roofed cabin on the prairie, Jimmy and Ida Bannon's eldest daughter Mabel was born.

Mabel grew up to teach school. As fate would have it, the windows of her one-room prairie schoolhouse were situated so that the students - and their teacher - could observe the dashing cowboy Bert, tall in the saddle.

You can guess where those particular paths were heading: Bert and Mabel married in Colorado and had three children. Don became our beloved uncle (pictured here with his folks), Mildred "Sis" became my mom, and Bert Jr. "Buck" became Mark's dad.

North to Alaska

Buck sated his own thirst for adventure while raising his family, turning his pilot's license to good use as an aerobatic crop-duster, his gift of gab to a stint MC'ing a local television show and his love of a party to square-dance calling. In 1967 Buck and Aunt Betty moved their growing family to the still raw Alaskan frontier. Buck wrote:

Anchorage is still a small town in many ways: personable attitudes, consideration for other people, basic honesty. Deals are made with a handshake. Homes are seldom locked. Stranded motorists are never bypassed. Residents love the outdoors, and they have access to millions of acres of it. Many of them use personal airplanes in much the way folks use their cars in the Lower 48.
Lake Hood, AK

The rest of the story is entirely Mark's. A kid with a thirst for adventure couldn't do better than Anchorage in the late 60's. Mark was thrilled, and no doubt Buck was thrilled (and Betty less so) to discover that airplanes were a big part of daily life in Anchorage:

Airplanes were as much a part of the Alaskan landscape as cars and trucks in 1967... At the age of 13 I learned about the Civil Air Patrol's cadet program. It was all about airplanes and learning to fly. I eagerly joined up and dedicated myself to working my way through the ranks.

In high school, Air Force Jr. ROTC was offered and I took that up as well. All of this association with airplanes really paid off once, when I learned that the parking ramp for aircraft was called a "flight line" in the military. So, the first time one of the cadet officers tried to fool me with a reference to needing "fifty feet of flight line", I was ready for him. I didn't fall for it.

To earn spending money Mark found work refueling float-equipped airplanes at the world's only towered "seaplane airport.":

Floatplane on Lake Hood, AK
I wangled a job as a "line boy" from an old World War Two salt named Ken Roundtree, who owned Big Red's Flying Service on the west shore of Lake Hood. The shack from which we operated had no running water and no toilet facilities, literally a business operating from a lakeshore cabin in the middle of town. But that was all right. We were no different than any of the other businesses around us.

The boy's wide-eyed enthusiasm made him a target of the old timers' wit. One day, Mark was sent to fetch a cup of hazardous and volatile "prop wash". He accomplished the errand, sweating bullets, only to find

Nearly everyone was outside to see me as I pulled up, and they all seemed to be in an extraordinarily good mood... Finally, when Ken could see his joke was failing on me, he slapped me on the back and said, "Mark, dammit, can't you see this was all one big joke? You know that propellers are painted black on the backside to prevent glare. And you know that prop wash is the wind the prop throws backward as it spins. This stuff is just fabric dope, you dope!"

I didn't mind having the trick played on me. But I always worked so hard to please Ken Roundtree, and I felt I had disappointed him by not getting his joke sooner. If only he'd asked me to fetch some flight line...

The jibes and practical jokes that the boy endured from the oldtimers didn't dissuade him.

East to Japan

In high school Mark and a buddy inadvertently joined the Marines, and he returned to the lower 48 as a private with the USMC. And at the age of 18 - nearly the same age that our great-granddads left their homes and began their wanderings - Mark departed the U.S. for the first time, bound for Tokyo.

January 14, 1974, I stepped out of the terminal and onto the nighttime sidewalk at an airport called Haneda on the outskirts of Tokyo, Japan. We were herded onto a bus that someone said was headed for the receiving barracks at U.S. Fleet Activities in Yokosuka (properly pronounced "yo-KO-ska"), some 35 miles south of Tokyo... I knew I wasn't in Kansas any more, Toto.

Mark learned to relish Japanese food - starting with an appetizer combo of dried squid and beer - Japanese culture and language, as he worked his way through the countryside as one of few Marine Guard patrolmen who had earned a Japanese driver's license.

Home Again

Three years later, having returned to Alaska and a wife and two young sons, and the small family becoming bored with slow starvation, Mark skidded into a job on local television. With no practical experience in broadcast media, he learned by doing.

Live television provided ample opportunities for gaffs. When Vallentine went on vacation I filled in as anchor of the local prime time newscast and the statewide news broadcast. My co-anchor was Cindy Suryan. Rich Vandiver had produced the newscast with his usual impeccable skill for flow. To flesh out a block that contained a "household hints" segment, he had inserted a short line-copy filler (non-visual story) about a criminal court hearing. Generally speaking, that would have been fine, but not this time. The on-live-air anchoring went something like this:

KATN TV Mark: "Forty-two-year Ed Lowry will wait another two weeks before he learns his fate... Lowry, you may recall, was convicted last July of murdering his wife Cathy with a knife, dismembering her body and trying to burn the body by stuffing it into their fire place." (Camera switches to Cindy)

Cindy, smiling: "Hamburger is a good way to stretch the family food budget…"

I almost fainted.

Mark learned fast, advancing at the station and becoming known around town as a "news personality". Pretty good for a neophyte.

He later became news director of KATN-TV in freezing Fairbanks. While he was there, Mark answered the call of the wild. In an example of fine adventure writing in the self-deprecating, let's-give-it-a-whirl style of Tim Cahill, Mark tells of his adventures "mushing":

Learn I did, even if it was in the fashion of most rookie mushers. Namely, á la dog versus á la human. Such a method takes twice as long, as the musher lets the dogs teach him the way the dogs would like to see it done, leaving little to human practicality. Then, after the canine element of the team has enjoyed a period of what has had to be a laughable treat to them, the musher has to un-learn what the dogs taught, then retrain the dogs in the proper fashion, á la human.

I spent the first winter with my boots almost never actually on the sled runners, while hanging on for dear life, and only occasionally staying on the sled through a complete ride. I careened from one side of a packed trail to the other, bounced off of unforgiving trees and other obstacles, shattered wooden sleds and generally cheated death by only inches on a regular basis. But I just couldn't stop...

I loved my years on the runners behind my canine engines, like nothing I've done before or since. A soft cold winter night with a bright full moon, out in the breeze with my furry "friends" and hearing nothing but their pants and the swish of runners over packed snow.

To the Tropics

In 1988, Mark was regaining his strength after a greuling bout with cancer and his wife was growing tired of the long cold winters. He sought employment somewhere warm, and chose Guam. The fifth distinct phase of his travels begins

Guam beach
Halfway around the world from the America that most of us know... It's a place where ubiquitous red clay, when upturned, betrays the deep quiet cool green of a tropical jungle. It's a place disparaged by repatriated American military personnel, yet considered by just as many Americans to be the epitome of paradise on earth. It's a cozy corner of America where long, slender, tapering palm tree trunks spring from sandy beaches and breaking surf to silhouette against crimson sunsets, yet is a place renown for its morose remoteness...

... For many Americans, thoughts of Guam evoke images of World War Two Pacific atolls, barren and battered, one of countless stepping stones on a path across a vast ocean to a hard-won victory, black-and-white images of embattled islands far away and times long ago. And yet, what waited for me was so much more...

The family journeyed from freezing Alaska to tropical Guam in one very long day.

Once on Guam I was taken first by the heat and humidity, feeling as though my lungs were collapsing at each breath. I had migrated from a super-dry, sub-arctic desert at Fairbanks to a tropical jungle on Guam... Passing long stretches of steep uphill roads, my first thought was, God, how did they make it up there in the winter time?

That passage struck a chord with me, as my first thought upon studying fancy landscapes in Florida is, "Where do they store the snow?" Natives of snow country never loose their urge to prepare for the next hard weather.

Japanese languge class

Mark resumed his work as an anchor, reporter and sometimes-cameraman for Guam Cable TV while he learned to love living in the tropics. He taught Japanese at Guam's Community College (see photo), took up tropical ocean activities such as deep sea fishing, spear fishing, junk hunting and shipwreck scuba diving. In the meantime, well, news anchor and reporter was good, but then:

While on Saipan I got a call from Guam, placed by the media aide of Guam Senator Gordon Mailloux... She said the senator had liked my work at Guam Cable TV and wanted to talk to me about taking over the media position that she presently held...

OK, so, Media Aide was a good gig, too. And then,

While driving to work during Guam's rush hour traffic, sirens forced me to pull over. A paramedic wagon rushed by in the same direction I was heading... it was not Senator Mailloux, but rather his newly-hired chief of staff, Joe Taitano. Overweight, Joe had suffered a fatal heart attack while climbing the stairs to the office that morning. Joe and I had come to like each other in the short time I had been working there. Within two hours after Joe was carted off in the paramedic wagon, the senator's staff surrounded my desk and pleaded with me, "Please tell us what to do. We don't know what we're supposed to be doing.

I looked at them with due surprise. How could Senator Mailloux be in office for nearly nine months and have a staff that didn't know what their jobs amounted to? True, I didn't know what my job amounted to either, but I had at least been on the periphery of such work. I looked at the faces around me and said, "Can I get back to each of you on that?"

... Thus, I became Senator Gordon Mailloux's chief of staff. Did I mention how Friday the 13th was my lucky day, if no one else's?"

In the footsteps of heroes

Mark's sojourn in the Senator's office included travel to Wake Island and to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Australia, New Zealand and Tonga, and two trips around the world. One of my favorite passages of these years brings to life some tragic and very human events in the South Pacific:

Thirty-nine young Guamanian men had signed on with Pan American Airways to serve in menial positions tending Pan Am's giant Clipper seaplanes when they stopped over on Wake Island.

Wake Island, aerial view ... The Guamanians were hopelessly stranded on Wake when the Japanese strafing started and the bombs began to fall on top of them, literally a couple hours later. They helped defend the island... Four of the young men were killed in the initial attack, and the remaining 35 were taken prisoner by the Japanese and sent to camps in Shanghai, China... The 33 who remained alive at the war's end in 1945 were repatriated to Guam where their heroic story was never told, withheld from the pages of every book and article about Wake Island's defense... To a man, they fell silent for forty years.

Finally, after much prodding by the Guam Veterans Affairs Department, the US Navy finally in the late 1980s recognized the men's status as US POWs, by which time only about a dozen were still alive.

On my little Mac computer, then, I designed the brass face of the monument that now stands on Wake Island in recognition of those men. In January of 1991, along with the seven remaining ambulatory Guamanian defenders of Wake Island, Senator Mailloux and I boarded a KC-135 Air Force tanker for a flight to Wake Island. During the preflight briefing at Anderson Air Force Base on Guam, we witnessed a comical moment when one of the aging defenders, Mr. Carbullido, raised his hand after the pilot asked if there were any questions.

"Yessir," Mr. Carbullido began uncertainly. "You said we would be back here on Guam by six o'clock tonight. And that's good, because I told my wife I'd be home in time for supper. But now, can you swear to that? Because the last time someone took me to Wake, it took over three years to get back home!"

Eleven months later, the Senator and his staff returned to Wake for the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day, this time with only five of the aging defenders able enough to make the journey.

A shark, a wedding and a trip around the world

We mentioned scuba diving, above, and Mark's truly entertaining style when writing about blundering outdoor adventures. Here's another that, even though it's a world away from dog-sledding, is just as amusing:

As I lingered on the gunwale for a brief second, I noticed a long gray fish laying on the deck of the boat. "Wow!" I muttered. "What a really nice fisssshhhhhhhaaaarrrrrkkkkkkk!" There, sprawled out before me was a 43½-inch white-tipped reef shark.

...the beast was laying on MY side of the boat. No problem. I reached down and grabbed him by the tail to move him out of my way. Theoretically, this could have been a genesis of bonding between man and beast, but it would seem the shark was already in a bad mood and had other ideas of bonding. Giving me a lesson in the flexibility of shark cartilage, he immediately curled up completely around and took aim at my hand. I responded by doing what any rational thinking person would do in this situation. I panicked...

Mark survived the shark. He also survived "Supertyphoon Omar," experiencing quite a lot of it outside when a well-intentioned dog rescue expedition left him locked out of the house. And he and his third wife celebrated their wedding underwater, bride and groom and preacher all in scuba gear.

Another well-documented trip around the world to celebrate their honeymoon was followed by a quick and painful divorce. And then the Senator's term ended, and:

I sold all my belongings, packed my knapsack, tucked my tail between my legs and turned my future toward California... In short, life had hiccuped and spat me out onto the sidewalks of Silicon Valley at the age of 38. In a stunned heap, I sat without a thing to my name. No money. No food. No clothing. No job. No pedigree. No prospects and no self respect.

Daily Nerd Migration

Another pivotal point of the story - for life is about stories, and good stories are about growth - occurs in the chapter entitled "The Daily Nerd Migration":

And so, at age 39 and on my own for the first time in my life, I returned to school, pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Business Management at the University of Phoenix... Contacts made with classmates resulted in my landing a lucrative, if not tedious, job as a "black box" software test engineer at Adobe. I was tapped to test CJK (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) text functionality in Adobe Illustrator's first integrated two-byte-capable core build... My one legacy to high tech.
Book cover

After obtaining his degree, Mark obtained his first real-life pilot's license, realizing a 35-year old goal, then moved to Arizona for the next phase, where

The only job I could find was selling cars, a career that supported me for five years, and provided a solid foundation for much of the development and personal improvement I so desperately needed.

It also provided the fodder for his published work, the definitive "gift-of-gab" treatise "How I Learned to Sell a Lot of Cars" (by Mark E. Ransom, find it on with this link).

Life is still an adventure

Today, Mark is considering settling down, maybe, eventually, who knows? He has earned his multi-engine pilot's license, published magazine articles on historic topics that interest him. He regales audiences from stage at square dances in the Arizona desert, and he and his lovely wife Elaine travel the west for square dances, representing their group "Cactus Corners".

Square Dance
Like a lot of people, I spent my life traveling around the world, searching dark back alleys, trying to decide what to be when I grew up. In fact, if you define success as achievement, you could say I have been a miserable failure... On the other hand, if you define success not as achievement but as the process of achieving, then I'm a resounding success.

I'd say so. There is no rule that states one must progress in a predefined order: book-learning, degree, career, then travel and fun. Mark simply mixed it up a bit. His method is inspiring in a way that holds out hope for the aimless.

The manuscript consists of broad brush strokes coloring pertinent historical events, and many small details and many intimate sketches. All of it adds up to a fearless acceptance of the next adventure, just there beyond the horizon. Mark seems to walk through life with his arms wide open, embracing each opportunity and enjoying each moment to the fullest. Just like his dad did, and his dad's dad, and their folks before them.

As for me, I cherish Great Grandma Ida's locket (and the pin-ball game that we all played at the Laramie house and that our parents played before us, and which is now hanging on my wall); but I often feel like an under-achiever in the adventure department. But Mark's story gave me the opportunity to realize that, although wanderlust had been a recessive trait in me, it's come to life again lately. So my heritage isn't so far removed from me after all, as I'm posting this at anchor.

So, now you know. I borrowed Mark's philosophy "Every Life is a Story" to justify collecting people's stories for these pages.

Mark, if you're reading this: finish up that manuscript and publish it soon. I'm waiting for the next chapter.


Well, ask and ye shall receive. The next chapter is being lived while we speak, as Mark is actively seeking his next career path. When reminded of his extensive resume by way of encouragement, he replied that a resume is merely a handy list of stuff one never wants to try again.

I have no doubt that Mark will come up with something interesting, that he later won't want to try again, but that shouldn't hold him back either.

Thanks, Mark!

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