When I was 7 years old, in the summer of 1976, my parents bought the house in which they still live. Like the Rodney Dangerfield joke, I was vacationing in Hawaii with my beach-bum grandmother for a month and returned home to find my parents had moved.
My first memory of the new neighborhood was riding my purple banana-seated JC Penney bike in the wide empty street toward the cul-de-sac at the end when a tiny mean girl named Sherry Dion leapt at me from behind a bush and threw a brick at me. She missed. If this were a Harlequin romance story I would have grown up and married Sherry Dion but this is not a Harlequin romance story so I never much liked her. Her older brother Chris became a friend and their mother was our Cub Scout den mother. The eldest child, Joseph, was something of a bully and lost a fight to me when I was a third or fourth grader and he was a sixth grader. Granted, I had a metal Kung Fu lunch box in my arsenal and he did not.
A block away from my parents house sits a large Church of Jesus Christ – Latter Day Saints. The two streets in my parents neighborhood have church names, Steeple Drive and Chapel Circle, and the subdivision was originally intended to house the Mormon community. As it happened, a very small percentage of Mormons bought the brand new houses so the neighborhood felt resoundingly heathen. We fit right in.
The year we moved in, the church was being rebuilt after a fire. Vast amounts of construction materials were available for liberation by the older kids in the ‘hood. I fondly remember tree forts built with plywood on the outside, drywall on the inside, and insulation between. I was too young for that period of larceny and when I was old enough to get into that kind of trouble there were no construction materials around. The best my friends and I could do was steal the chrome valve stem caps off of the tires of the fancier cars parked in the church parking lot and then put the shiny caps on the valve stems of my Schwinn Scrambler. Of course my bike only had two tires, so my crime spree stopped at two. And what was there to do with the left over black plastic caps? Put them on the cars we’d taken the chrome ones from. I would have never been a very successful criminal.
Throughout my childhood I had heard comedic reference to Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on people’s doors but I never met a Jehovah’s Witness until I was an adult. It was Mormons who knocked on our door (and we seldom answered).
I never saw my father read a book for pleasure while I was growing up but he has two engineering degrees and seems to know everything about everything. In the past few years, since his mother died, my dad has been highly interested in the Anderson family tree. By highly interested what I really mean is totally obsessed.
It started simply enough: he first reconnected with his sister, his cousins and other relatives and arranged a family reunion. At the reunion he digitally raided everyone’s photo archives and helped compile them into a fairly extensive Anderson family tree. Then it got more complicated.
His grandfather worked on the railroad all the live-long day, specifically the railroad at the Kennicott Copper Mine near the town of McCarthy, Alaska.
One of the richest deposits of copper was discovered in 1900 halfway up the side of a mountain in the serious backwoods nowhere that was (and continues to be) central Alaska. The Kennicott Copper Corporation’s mine, backed by the Guggenheims (of museum fame) and J.P. Morgan, produced nearly 600,000 tons of copper and employed 800 people at its peak. It was the richest copper mine in the world until it closed in 1938.
Kennicott was a strictly ruled “company town" so the town of McCarthy sprung up a few miles away to provide the miners and railroad workers with restaurants, pool halls, saloons, etc. Where Kennicott was the equivalent of Beverly Hills, McCarthy was the equivalent of North Hollywood. Both towns were there for the sole purpose of servicing the mine and miners so when the mine went bust, so did both towns.
Today McCarthy has less than 100 year round residents and is adjacent to the largest national park in the world, the 13.2 million acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
A very cool thing (and what probably lit the fire in my dad’s heart for exploration) is that when the mine shut down immediately after a plunge in copper prices, most of the tools, equipment, and various historical droppings were just left where they lay.
History is literally in one’s hands if one can climb up to the various mine entrances (most of which are blocked by the US Forest Service). My dad wouldn’t dare take anything from a mine but to explore and take pictures – ah, a dream come true!
So my dad, dragging my mom in his wake, has traveled at least once a year, sometimes two or three times, to this desolate near ghost-town, meeting people along the way and trading / sharing pictures, documents, and memories with anyone who has had any connection with 1920’s McCarthy. He’s tracked down authors of books about the area which haven’t been in print in decades.
He has a picture of his mother as a child standing in front of McCarthy’s one room schoolhouse in the early 1920’s. He has met most of the surviving “McCarthy Kids” who went to school with his mother. Bear in mind, these folks are in their 80’s by now.
Being an engineer, he is fascinated with the blueprints and architectural drawings of the mine and its buildings and structures. He has maps of every shaft and vent carved into the mountains around McCarthy.
When my dad talks about McCarthy and Kennicott, his eyes light up with nearly religious zeal. His enthusiasm is so infectious that it’s hard not to get caught up in it. If you like old photos, he’s got hundreds of them. If you like blueprints, he has huge ones of nearly every structure in that area. If you like nature photos, he has them from the 19-teens to the present. If you like horses and puppies, I’m sure he can come up with horses and puppy pictures from Kennicott / McCarthy.
Which is why I think he would have made a great Mormon missionary, so long as the mission was to spread the gospel of Saint McCarthy. I can envision my dad as a clean scrubbed and impeccably dressed young man going door to door clutching his McCarthy documents in one hand and a golf ball in the other (Mormons usually use golf balls to knock on doors so that their knuckles don’t get swollen from all the knocking). I further envision this conversation between houses between my dad and his mission partner, Levi.
Levi: Man, I’m so tired of having doors closed in my face. How about you?
Dad: Oh, I could go for miles. Let’s hit the next neighborhood over, I’ll bet a dozen or so of the hundred houses will let us in a give us a few minutes to show them pictures of the Blessed Mine.
Levi: C’mon. Don’t you ever want to just go get a beer and try to pick up some girls?
Dad: Oh you know we don’t drink beer. But sure, I think about girls. Have you seen those pictures of Klondike Kate, the famous prostitute? Hubba hubba.
Levi: You, my friend, are a nut.
Dad: I, my friend, am a true believer.
And he is. He has gone to McCarthy on more than one occasion to, and I kid you not, give slide show history presentations about McCarthy / Kennicott to the locals. The locals! It’s not like these folks don’t have plenty of free time when it’s 40 below zero and the roads are snowed in during the winter. They should know all the stories, yet my dad has the goods.
The other part of Mormonism my dad would get into is the genealogy. The actual Mormons are happy to help you trace your roots because they will use those records in their ceremonies to convert the dead. No, I’m not making this up. Did you know every dead President of the United States is a Mormon?
If I were a Dan Brown type writer I might write a thriller about Catholic Church records custodians and Mormon Dead Converters fighting over the soul of Jesus. Or Mary. Or someone.
But my dad would use these genealogy records to play a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon type game where he would tie everyone from Jesus to Ghandi somehow to the town of McCarthy. Sound crazy? Try this:
Ukrainian gymnast Yekaterina Serebryanskaya
She won the gold in the Olympic rhythmic gymnastics individual all-around in the Olympic games in Atlanta, Georgia in 1996.
John Pemberton invented Coca Cola in Atlanta, Georgia in 1886
Mean Joe Green was in a famous Coca Cola commerical where he gave a kid his sweaty jersey.
Green played for the Pittsburgh Steelers football team
Pittsburgh was the home of US Steel
JP Morgan created US Steel while building up that and many other “trusts”
On of JP Morgan’s enterprises was the Kennicott Copper Corporation.
Now there’s one other Mormon tradition which may or may not appeal to my father. Mormons wear sacred undergarments. Always. I don’t know why. I don’t know whether they buy the garments from the Mormon Wal-mart or if they make them by hand from the pelts of trapped Chihuahuas.
There are some things a son does not want to know about his father. No matter how proud of and continually amazed at my dad I am, I really don’t want to know if he wears special skivvies.