FAIRBANKS — Frank Stagno went in an airboat where no one had gone before.
It's not that the man addressed by some as "Famous Frank" couldn't live down the events of that August night in 1985, it's just that people in Fairbanks couldn't forget it.
At a memorial service for Stagno in late July in Fairbanks, one of the photo displays about his life was devoted to the newspaper coverage of the time he tried to drive an airboat to the Lonely Lady topless bar and the court case that followed.
Even Stagno's obituary, published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, made mention of how "Frank was made infamous as 'Airboat Stagno' for his ride down Airport Way in 1985."
Mike Stagno, Frank's brother, recalls him as an "easy-going guy with a harsh bark. He'd tell you what he thought. Sometimes it was a little nasty, but he was a good-hearted guy." To this day, people ask Mike about his brother's overland boat trip.
Accomplished at small engine repair, Frank was a good bowler and golfer who loved riding snowmachines and going to the family cabin on the Goodpaster River. On TV, he enjoyed watching NHRA drag races and "The Price is Right."
He owned several airboats during his life, only one of which got him into the newspaper.
Stagno died last fall at 61 but his friends waited until late July to gather at the Fairbanks Curling Club and celebrate his life. The theme for the evening was represented by a mannequin near the door dressed in Frank's snowmachine suit and helmet. One hand of Frank's likeness gripped a can of Miller, while his other arm was raised in a friendly one-finger salute.
Stagno managed to stay clear of most legal entanglements for the last quarter-century as he mellowed with time, his family says, but his Airport Way boat ride in 1985 did leave a lasting impression, and not just on the melted bottom of his boat.
On Aug. 23, 1985, Stagno had spent hours traveling the Chena and Tanana rivers near Fairbanks in his 15-foot Air Gator, which had plenty of power from a 455-cubic inch Buick engine.
Midnight had passed when Stagno and two fellow airboat buddies pulled up to the Pike's Landing riverfront bar on the Chena for drinks.
It's not clear why the desire to test the overland mettle of Stagno's airboat at 3 a.m. became lodged in his mind, but it did.
"Stagno's friends each bet him $200 that he could not take them, via airboat, from their present location to a nearby topless bar," is the way that Robert Coats, a judge on the Alaska Court of Appeals, summarized the origins of the incident in a 1987 court ruling. The sequence of events that followed would prove costly for Stagno.
"The destination was about three-quarters of a mile away, over land. Stagno apparently accepted the bet, because the three men boarded Stagno's airboat, and headed for the next bar," Coats wrote.
Mike Stagno believes that the men merely talked about a bet and dropped the idea but that the 32-year-old Frank got into his boat and thought to himself, "Screw it, I'm going to do it."
What he did was to head upstream on the Chena to the Compeau's boat landing, riding easy on the water. From there he motored onto Boat Street with a tremendous clatter, the flat-bottomed boat pushed forward by the 150 mph prop wash. Within minutes he made it across Airport Way and reached the parking lot of the Castle Restaurant, not far from the Lonely Lady in west Fairbanks.
The streets were almost deserted, but not entirely.
"Herbert Sobey, who had driven from Anchorage to Fairbanks on business, caught sight of the 'vehicle' in his rearview mirror," Coats wrote for the court. "Sobey thought that it was an airplane about to crash into the bed of his truck and kill him."
He reported the airboat encounter to the night desk at the motel, which led to a call to the authorities.
"You're not going to believe this, but a guest just checked in and said he saw an airboat on the highway," David Jude, the night deskman, testified in court about his statement to the Troopers.
The airboat had plenty of power for pavement travel but the plastic liner on its bottom melted off in chunks from the tremendous heat generated as it screeched along the road.
Stagno never made it to the Lonely Lady. An airport policeman had heard the ear-shrieking sound and stopped to accost him in the parking lot, where the boat was cooling off in a puddle, but saw no need for an arrest. The policeman told him to "get the hell back to the river where he belonged," the officer later told a reporter.
Stagno roared off toward the river on what would have been a quiet road, but the Troopers stopped him on Boat Street and nabbed him for drunken driving.
When the case went to court, defense attorney Dick Madson tried to get Stagno off by saying that there was no law against driving a boat on land, but the jury convicted Stagno of drunk driving, his third conviction in 10 years, the first involving a boat.
He did not lose his boat, however. The state argued otherwise but the appeals court upheld the notion that the boat was not a motor vehicle.
Stagno replaced the plastic bottom on his boat and did not try to drive on the street again, his brother said.
It was not the only strange encounter Stagno had near that old restaurant on the west side of Fairbanks after a night at Pike's Landing.
Eleven years earlier, when it was the Switzerland, he missed a turn and his VW bug ended up in a gravel pit close to where the new airport access road was under construction.
The car floated for 10 minutes, enough time for him to escape unharmed. A diver arrived the next morning to try to retrieve the car but it was too late — a contractor had already started to fill in the gravel pit and the crushed VW had become part of the road foundation.
The newspaper story about Stagno's vehicle being in the wrong place at the wrong time, headlined "Gravel covers drowned car," was a precursor of one in 1986, "It's Airport, not Airboat Way, DWI jury told."