After the wreck, a dazed Ken Waldman turned to the pilot and got straight to the point.
“Am I dying?” he asked. The pilot, seeing Waldman’s bloodied head — an injury that would later garner 100 stitches — downplayed it.
“I’ve seen worse injuries on hockey players,” he said.
After their small plane clipped a snow-capped hill somewhere near Nome, Alaska, the pilot and lone passenger sat in the wrecked plane for three hours, waiting for help.
“Our time together was kind of surreal,” said Waldman, who brings his fiddling poetry show to Cal Poly next Sunday. “The pilot at various times was freaking out.”
Fortunately, Waldman had poetry to help him through the ordeal, and Alaska’s Fiddling Poet survived to fly to another gig.
“It was one of those things that feels more mythic as times goes on,” he said.
Waldman’s show, which has been compared to Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” will feature several musicians in a variety-show format.
His art provided an unexpected career for someone who’d never played an instrument until his mid-20s. A management science student at Duke University in the 1970s, Waldman went to school to play tennis.
“I was somebody who played at a pretty high level growing up,” he said. “I played national junior tournaments.”
After graduation, he taught tennis while waiting tables and working at a bookstore. Yet, while living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the Philadelphia native had two roommates who played music. And through them he procured a fiddle.
“I was awkward at it,” he remembered. “I can’t say I was very good, but I was stubborn.”
After a stop in Seattle, he went to Alaska to study literature at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. While living alone in a cabin with no TV, running water or telephone, Waldman had plenty of time to practice his fiddle.
“When I was getting better on fiddle playing, I was starting to write poems,” he said. “One of the things I wrote about was fiddle playing.”
Waldman would eventually teach writing in college. Meanwhile, he was gaining a reputation as a fiddling poet, who played bluegrass interspersed with original poetry.
“When I moved there, I was turning 30, and I could barely play the fiddle, and I’d never written a poem in my life,” Waldman said. “And then 10 years later, well—Alaska’s Fiddling Poet at your service!”
By the mid-’90s, he was working as a fiddling poet, traveling to different villages in Alaska to give performances. Since Alaska is very rural, much of the traveling had to be done by plane.
Which is what he was doing on March 2, 1996, when he boarded a small plane with a young pilot.
“It turned out the pilot was inexperienced,” he said. “And not just inexperienced, but inexperienced in that part of the world.”
As they traveled through a white-out, drifting away
from the frozen ocean, a nervous Waldman began writing poetry. But visibility worsened and the plane clipped a hill, mercifully coming down on its belly.
Waldman, sitting in the co-pilot seat, was briefly knocked out after hitting his head. While the pilot managed to radio for help, sitting in the plane with nowhere to go made him freak out, Waldman said.
“Don’t you have anything to talk about?” he asked Waldman, who had suffered a concussion.
“If you talk, I will listen,” Waldman told him. “If you have a question, I’ll answer. But, no — I don’t have anything to talk about.”
“Do you have anything to read?” the pilot said.
Waldman fished out some poetry chapbooks he’d put together, but the pilot said, “I can’t read these.”
“And I said, ‘Some of these poems are pretty good,’ ” recalled Waldman, who has several poetry books, a memoir, a kids book and CDs to his credit. “And I actually read him poems to calm him down.”
Eventually, rescuers arrived on snowmobiles. And after the stitches, Waldman was back on a plane within a month.
Today, he continues to travel, performing at concert venues, libraries and schools. Like his family-friendly gig at Cal Poly —which happens to occur during National Poetry Month— he frequently brings along other musicians who play his Appalachian-style music.
While that plane crash nearly put a halt to his career — and all else— Waldman doesn’t shy from writing about it, as he did in a short poem titled “Nome Celebrity,” published in the book “Nome Poems” (West End Press, 2000):
Two years writing, teaching,
fiddling, sharing all I could,
I was known in Nome, maybe,
as one of the crazies who rode a bike winter-long.
Then I walked from a plane crash.
Old-timers I didn’t think knew me
now greeted me by name. I saw
how others watched, and whispered.
I let drunks touch me for luck.
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.