Anyone who served at Eielson Air Force Base in the early 1960s remembers Sergeant Ross. A man with a voice like a jackhammer, striding into the early morning stillness. The sleeping recruits. The voice let loose like the roar of a shotgun, fired over their heads.
RISE AND SHINE DIRTBAGS! EVRYBODY UP! EVERYBODY OUT! LET’S MOVE IT!
For 20 years Ross served as a training instructor, ordering this man to drop and give him fifty, and that one to scrub the latrines.
And yet, here in the last frontier Sgt. Ross grew and nurtured a secret, softer side of himself, one that wasn’t so secret, at all. This was the land of the Midnight Sun, Alaska style, just outside of Fairbanks. Here the Orlando Florida-born 1st Sergeant learned to appreciate the beauty of a fresh fall of snow. The majesty of the Aurora Borealis and the magnificent mountains and tall trees.
First came the art classes, to fill the quiet hours, off-duty. The large brush, wet-on-wet painting techniques that allowed Sgt. Ross to wolf down a sandwich and complete an entire canvas, all in a half-hour lunch. Painting gave the man a moment of joy and then it was…back to work.
COME ON LADIES, WE’RE NOT ON VACATION. LET’S GET THE LEAD…OUT!
On this day in 1963 and, for that matter, every day between April 22 and August 20, the sun never seems to set in that part of Alaska. A personal friend jokes about a family trip from Fairbanks to Florida in which he learned his kids associate warmth and cold not with the change of season, but the presence or absence of light.
So it was this human bullhorn of a man had an abundance of daylight in which to appreciate the beauty of Alaska and to hone and practice, his art. He produced hundreds of paintings during this period perhaps thousands and sold them, for a few extra dollars spending money.
”I developed ways of painting extremely fast. I used to go home at lunch and do a couple while I had my sandwich. I’d take them back that afternoon and sell them.”Sgt. Robert Norman Ross
All things, must come to an end. Today, Eielson Air Base hosts the 354th Fighter Wing with a mission statement, “[T]o provide USINDOPACOM combat-ready fifth-generation airpower, advanced integration training, and strategic arctic airpower basing”.
Robert Norman Ross left the military after twenty years to pursue different interests and died too soon at the age of 52, of lymphoma. The New York times obituary said simply that the man “Was A Painter On TV.” There was no picture, nor any mention of the ugly battle that was about to break out, over his fifteen million dollar estate.
But, imagine if you will the surprise of any of those Air Force recruits from the height of the Cold War, on turning on the TV. To their favorite PBS channel to see their former drill sergeant. The man with a voice that could crack rocks sporting not the crew cut and close-shaved face of the early 1960s but a beard and an afro, the size of a basketball.
And there it was again, that oversized brush and that voice, now speaking in the soporific tones of Mr. Rogers. The cerulean reds and the burnt umbers, the tranquil almost somnolent words painting a picture, of the Joy of Painting. The happy little tree I think we’ll put…right…Here.
Hat tip to Mike Rowe and a fun podcast he calls “The Way I Heard It”, without which I would remain entirely ignorant, of this tale.