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Profile of Joseph D. Hill
By Charles Wohlforth
All Rights Reserved
Original published 08/05/90 in Anchorage Daily News We Alaskans section
Joe Hill had miles of twine. The day before I married his daughter, Aug. 2, 1985, I went to borrow some to hold up the canopy over the reception in case of rain. Together we searched his house in Spenard for one of the beach ball-sized lumps of stout, green, nylon string that were hidden among everything else he collected.
The house was full of so full that it was difficult to find the way through the yard to the door, and through the door into the rooms. I gave up trying to keep my clothes clean. Joe, in Army pants and a dirty white T-shirt, scrambled over the mounds.
Joe's family had been driven away by then--he'd run out of room in the house for both them and the stuff he'd collected--and I had met him only a few times. But that day, when the subject turned to surplus, I began to see the charm Barbara had told me about.
We found the twine. Using an upended barrel as a table, we cut out the lengths with his sharp pocketknife. Joe handed me a box of matches to scorch the ends so they wouldn't fray. I nervously went through half a dozen trying to light one.
Joe smiled under his hand. In a rumbling voice he might use to tell a guy his fly was unzipped, he said, "You know, generally speaking, that'll work better if you strike the match on the black stripe there on the box."
The next day he came into my territory. He wore a suit he bought just for the wedding. Standing at the reception, stepping from one foot to the other, he looked as if he wished someone would ask him to move something. When he smiled, he looked like he was giving it plenty of thought.
I don't remember seeing him again until his death, three years later almost two years ago now.
I had lived in Alaska all my life, but still I didn't understand people like Joe. There are many like him. They come here with tools and want to change the place, and end up surrounded by junked cars, equipment that might or might not be made to work, and other odds and ends with unknown possibilities. They're optimists. Only optimism, and a certain innate interest in large objects, could have led Joe to work so hard for so many years to collect so much stuff for so little reason. Only an optimist would build a tractor in the dining room, leaving till later the question of how to get it out.
Mostly, Joe didn't worry much about getting things out. He was a pack rat. His interest in equipment, tents, survival gear and objects with no apparent function was an obsession. He would come back from the big military surplus auctions in Fairbanks with his moving van full, then unload it in the yard so he could make another trip. By the time he died, the house in Spenard where his family had lived was completely jammed with military gear.
It was a big house, but the lower floor was completely full. It was plugged, from floor to ceiling, so that the only way to go in would be to start taking stuff out. The upstairs was nearly full, too. The living room was piled from the floor to the 10-foot ceiling with tents, clothing, parachutes, helmets, everything you would need for an arctic war except guns. There was a narrow path over the top of a 4foothigh layer of stuff that led from the door to the television and from there to the bathroom and the bed, where he had left just enough room to lie down. Outside, the yard was the same--with huge piles of metal, bicycles, ammo boxes, rocket launcher tubes, helicopter pads and 20-man tents set up to store piles of 20-man tents.
Joe died on Oct. 24, 1988, unloading junk at the dump. By then he was under an order from the city's zoning enforcers--reasonable and long overdue--to clean up his yard. As he did everything, he was trying to do it himself.
That was only one of his unhealthy habits. His diet was another. Joe's kitchen was full of surplus, so he ate with his friends at Godfather's Pizza and McDonald's during the day and sat in front of the TV at night eating ice cream by the half-gallon carton.
Joe's family never knew why he loved his junk so much. His wife, Barbara Jean, his son, Jim, and his daughter, Barbara, talk about it occasionally, but not often. It is an uncomfortable subject. Despite their warm memories of a good man, they cannot help remembering, too, how his possessions drove them away. He never told them how he came to choose his junk over his own wife and children.
Why do some people behave that way? Why do they gather, and gather, and gather and almost never throw away?
THE LAST TIME we saw him, Joe was lying on a bed in the Providence Hospital Emergency Room. It was late evening, and Barbara and I had rushed to the hospital to find him there, unconscious, as far as we could tell, with a sheet draped over his big potbelly and one leg twitching and kicking.
The doctor said Joe's heart had blown a hole in itself. They would operate, but the chances of survival were one in 20. Fifteen minutes earlier we had been sitting at home, reading. Now we were agreeing to life-or-death surgery. Barbara whispered in her father's ear in the bright room, among the technicians rushing back and forth. She told him the family was coming from Homer, and that she loved him. Then they wheeled him off.
The four of us--Barbara, her brother, Jim, their mother, Barbara Jean--sat in a room and walked the hospital halls for hours. At about four in the morning the doctors gave up. Despite the long night to prepare, we were all surprised that he was dead. He was 63 years old.
The next day, Jim and I went searching for Joe's truck and to find out what had happened to him. Where was he when he had the attack? And when? What caused it? No one at the hospital knew. The police directed us to a wrecking yard. They didn't know anything. We got the address of the paramedic call, 56th and Juneau, and drove there, wondering what we would find. It was the midtown city dump transfer station.
Joe's truck was parked off to the side, still half loaded with junk. Jim and I finished unloading. We could hardly move the steel plates Joe had put in the truck by himself the day before. A dump employee asked us what happened to Joe. He was a friend--he'd seen him there a lot. He was the one who had called the ambulance when he saw Joe lying on the ground, unable to speak.
A lot of people none of us knew came to the memorial service. I had thought of Joe as a lonely man, eating ice cream in front of his TV amid his junk. But Jim had gone to the fastfood places where he ate and told the regulars about his father's death. They were saddened, and the word spread.
It was only afterward that the family fully realized they had a house full of military surplus gear that they didn't really want. Jim started to dig through the stuff.
"It took me two days to get from the door to where the clock is," he said. That was a distance of about two yards.
Jim had been living in Homer and driving to Anchorage two days each week to work on the docks as a longshoreman. Now he plunged into the job of clearing out his father's house. A surplus store agreed to take some of the stuff, and with a team of workers Jim began digging through it.
He worked day and night. Layers began to disappear. Rooms that had been blocked off for years became accessible again. Barbara's childhood bedroom, which hadn't been reachable since her freshman year in college, was found to contain a supply of helmets and chemical warfare suits. Each time we went to visit, the space in the house had become larger, until there was room for us all to sit around a table for pizza and beer.
"I got pretty brutal about what I would throw away," Jim said. " "This doesn't have any writing on it, it doesn't mean anything, out it goes.' Dad would take pictures of trailers in Oregon that he had no intention of buying or doing anything about, but he just was interested in."
Jim was dismantling his father's lifework. He kept finding treasures. A pair of Coast Guard binoculars, an obsolete navigation volume, a set of arctic clothes good to absolute zero, which he gave to me. An arc welder about the size of a Volkswagen and a wardrobe of hundreds of pairs of fatigues, which he kept for himself. Wooden rocket launcher cases, which make excellent planters, for Barbara. Joe had a lot of posthumous gifts. There was a life insurance policy Barbara Jean knew nothing about.
"Winches? He loved them," Jim said. "He bought lots of them, and none of them worked. . . . He had about 40 bicycles, and every one had some kind of problem."
There was a manual typewriter with a carriage more than a yard long, a vice big enough to crush the typewriter, and a torque wrench the size of a man's leg for reverse-threaded nuts.
"After about a month a different perspective came in," Jim said. "And I'd find something and say, "Dad would have saved this.' "
Business records began to turn up when he dug down to the level of the desks and table. Each surface would represent an archaeological period of the two weeks it had taken for Joe to bury it for good.
Joe tended to give stuff away instead of selling it. When he did sell tents and trailers, he made a big profit margin that was one of his sincere joys but he would only spend the money to buy more. A 10-to-1 profit margin only meant he could buy 10 times faster.
"People still come around and say, "Is Joe here?' " Jim said. "And their faces just fall when I say Dad passed away a year and a half ago. And then they tell me all the stuff he gave them."
Joe's son, Jim, is tall, bearded and has thick arms from years of lashing down cargo on ships. But he is gentle, too, and smiles most of the time. It is a slightly unnerving smile. He always seems to be quietly enjoying a funny situation no one else appreciates. And that is the way he goes through life, as if he knows something that makes him realize nothing is worth getting upset over. At 32, he is single and still hangs out with friends he made in Anchorage high schools. At one point he lived in a commune with one of them.
Jim respects his father the way you respect someone who accomplishes the impossible. Joe was a traditional man, but he respected his son's good sense, too. When Jim was 18, he pointed out to his father that he would be able to save a lot of money if he grew his own marijuana in the basement. Though Joe didn't drink and certainly didn't smoke marijuana himself, he thought his son's proposal was logical and agreed. Until he moved away from home, Jim managed a small, subterranean pot farm.
In Jim's eyes, his father's death was the passing of a giant.
He talks about the time when he was a boy they went moose hunting--the only time--on the family's Point MacKenzie homestead. Jim got overtired, and Joe felt guilty. So while his son slept, he built a huge fire in the cabin's barrel stove. And then the roof caught on fire.
"It's this gigantic stove, and Dad has got it full of fresh-cut spruce, and I wake up and watch for a while . . . and I see the roof of the cabin is on fire, and the flames are going out the door. And Dad is filling pots of snow and putting them on the stove to melt it, and then throwing the water on the fire. And I was laying there just bleary-eyed, and after a while I decided Dad had it under control and went back to sleep. So the next morning we woke up and we never even mentioned it to each other. But we decided we'd had enough of moose hunting."
Joe drove trucks, tractors and buses in the civil service at Elmendorf Air Force Base. He hated the job, according to Jim.
"He would get up at 4 or 4:30 in the morning, get out in the yard and work, and then go to work at his job at 6 a.m., and then in the evening he came home and worked in the yard until 10 at night, day after day after day," Jim said.
"The bad thing is, Dad and I didn't talk much about his job. But the good thing was that he was doing this shit that he didn't like because it had good benefits, good pay and good hours, to take care of us, his family. And I appreciate that. I've appreciated that since I was a kid and was old enough to know."
Two years later, Jim still hasn't gotten to the bottom of it all. Most of the house is cleared out, but some of the objects are just too big and heavy to move.
"That guy was so strong, it's incredible," he said. "He moved 1,000-pound things. I see things now, and I wonder, how did he get that there? And I have to move it, and I have no idea how."
JOE HILL WAS ALREADY buying and selling when he and Barbara Jean Perkins met in college, in Chico, Calif.
"He always liked the idea of buying and selling surplus," she said. "It was someone he knew in Susanville who made a killing on a lot of surplus stuff he got right after the war."
Joe and Barbara Jean lived a long, weary drive apart in the arid, wilderness mountains of northeastern California. Joe drove all night on the weekends to take Barbara Jean to dances. On one of those trips, after being up all weekend, he fell asleep at the wheel. He was in a body cast for 18 months. When he got out, in 1950, they married.
Joe finished two years of studying architecture at San Luis Obispo on the GI bill, but got bored. Barbara Jean was an elementary school teacher and also was ready to move. Both were from families that had moved west for generations. They decided to go to Anchorage, or Fairbanks, or maybe Canada. In the summer of 1952, they got in the car and headed north. "We thought we were on a vacation, but we knew we weren't coming back," Barbara Jean said.
When they settled on Anchorage, Joe got his job on base but saved his ambition for a business of his own. In 1955, he traded a Dodge Powerwagon for two lots near Merrill Field and built a restaurant called EskimoSno. Barbara Jean worked all winter teaching elementary school, then for two years also flipped burgers and scooped ice cream at the EskimoSno, while Joe managed. It took Barbara Jean two years to rebel.
"I did all the dirty work in between teaching," she said. "It sort of happened to a lot of women. We had been raised to be obedient wives, but we were working now.
"I said, "We either get a divorce or we get out of business.' "
Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist, wrote that in every relationship, a contract soon evolves. Maybe it is something simple: He drives, but she decides the route. But soon, and as long as the relationship lasts, the contract stands. For Barbara Jean and Joe, the contract was written in 1954 when she stopped flipping burgers.
Barbara Jean's spirit is happy, willing, generous to a fault. In some ways, she's still a tomboy playing with her brothers and sisters in the dusty, high California desert, taking dares and not getting mad when she gets hurt. But she also has her mother's backbone. She won't be cheated; her children won't suffer. There simply isn't any question about that.
Joe got away with plenty, but there was always the breaking point, when Barbara Jean delivered her ultimatum. And then Joe would fall in line, at least for a while.
They sold the EskimoSno. Later it became a beauty parlor.
Joe and Barbara Jean turned their attention instead to the traditional way of making it in Alaska. They looked for a homestead.
They traveled the Kenai Peninsula on their search, and ultimately bought a lot and built a cabin in Homer. But that wasn't where they staked their claim. One autumn when they were duck hunting on the Susitna River, they heard of something that fit Joe's ambition much better. They met Dave Ring, a Point MacKenzie homesteader who had surrounded himself with like-minded postwar pioneers. Homesteading at Point MacKenzie sounded perfect. The land was just two miles from downtown Anchorage by water, and it was inevitable that a causeway or bridge would cross the Inlet and link the two by 1970. The Chamber of Commerce said so. Then everyone would cash in.
In 1957, the Hills staked their first claim. They built the required shelter and, on May 10, moved in. Barbara Jean was five months pregnant then with Jim and teaching school; Joe still worked at Elmendorf. They commuted to work in a plywood skiff, timing their trips with the tides to avoid walking across the dangerous mud flats.
Jim was born that October. With a letter from her doctor, Barbara was allowed to stay in town for the birth and recovery, avoiding the homestead's seven month residency requirement. Joe remained on the homestead until December to prove up, dodging icebergs in the skiff. Sometimes the tide forced him to rise as early as 3 in the morning to get to work.
Homesteaders were required then to clear 20 acres for fields within five years because of federal regulations with the anachronistic goal of spreading agriculture. Joe bought two used tractors, carried them across the Inlet in a boat and hoisted them up the 50foot bluff.
"I would always say, "This is not possible. This can't be done,' " Barbara Jean said. "He came out one morning and said, "Today, we are going to lift up the cabin and put it on those timbers.' And I said, "Uh-huh, sure. You lift it up and I'll put the timbers under it.' But by the end of the day, we'd done it. Just the two of us."
It just took ingenuity, resolve, and a collection of unusual equipment--in that case, jacks used for lifting locomotives.
"He would drag stuff over there," Barbara Jean said. "Already, he started to collect stuff there that he thought might be useful. Some of it just rotted finally in the woods there. We never did use it."
But Joe never let dynamite go to waste. He used it to blow up stumps on the homestead.
"I remember the days we went out and blew up stumps. I loved that," said Jim. "I remember those stumps being blown into the air, and Dad running like hell. He must have been using fuses."
After his auto accident, Joe's left leg never bent again, and when he ran from the dynamite, the stiff leg sent him vaulting in the air.
"I remember him running like hell from dynamite, too," said his daughter, Barbara. "When he'd run he'd be up in the air for long periods of time."
One summer, Joe had a whole case of dynamite of suspect stability. Barbara Jean and the kids were at the other end of the homestead when he decided to set it off all at once. He put it in the middle of a field, lit the fuse, and ran like hell, diving behind a bank. But the explosion was larger than he expected, and when the family returned he had some explaining to do. There was a huge crater in the ground, the leaves had been knocked off the trees surrounding the field, and the chinking had been blown out of the cracks between the logs of the cabin.
It was about then the family set about building a golf course. They had a shot at getting an 80-acre parcel on the point if they could convince the government they intended to use it for manufacturing or trade.
But what trade made sense on 80 acres of wilderness? There weren't any moneymaking businesses at Point MacKenzie; there were hardly any people. But Joe had an idea. Golf. At first, players could come in float planes, preferably with their mosquito net hats and hip boots. After the causeway was built, he'd be sitting on a gold mine.
Building the course, however, meant clearing a lot of trees, cutting a lot of grass with a scythe, buying cases of golf balls and painting them red. And learning to play. They called it "the Fly-In Nine." It operated one year.
During those days Joe lived on five hours of sleep a night, drinking coffee from huge cups. He worked late into the night in a T-shirt, seeming not to feel the cold when others were wearing fur parkas.
IN TOWN, THE FAMILY had a rented house, waiting for the day when they could build their permanent house on the homestead.
"They said there would be a causeway by 1970," Barbara Jean said. "They said it was certain there would be a causeway by 1970. So we thought in 1970 we would be able to move there."
But in 1962, Joe got tired of waiting. While Barbara Jean was in California, pregnant with Barbara and showing off Jim to the family, Joe decided it was time to build a house in Anchorage. Immediately.
"He put all the clothes in one big bag and put it in the old trailer," Barbara Jean said. "He was just in a hurry. He didn't want to pay another month's rent, he wanted to build a house. And we didn't even own a lot. This was August, and I came back and had to teach in September, and he had moved us out of the house and put everything in plastic bags."
When she got home, they looked for a lot.
"Along Spenard strip was all strawberry fields," Barbara Jean said. "The first trip we made out on Spenard Road was just impossible. There were huge potholes."
Joe used another of his incredible bursts of energy to dig a pit, lay a foundation and build cinderblock basement walls. A sheet of Visqueen on top and a big oil stove in the middle and they had a home. It was common in Anchorage then for people to live in the basement, often for years, while the rest of a home was under construction. Except most families put on a roof before moving in.
It started to get cold. The leaves fell. After a big rain, two inches of ice formed on the concrete floor. Barbara Jean sent Jim, 5, to live with his baby sitter and issued Joe another ultimatum. Again, it worked. The roof was on by Thanksgiving, and on their anniversary, Dec. 17, Joe gave Barbara Jean a front door, all wrapped up with a bow. It replaced a piece of canvas that was hanging across the threshold.
For Barbara's birth, Joe tried to finish the interior walls. He hammered all night the whole week before, and when Barbara Jean was in the hospital in labor. He was still hammering all night the first day the baby was home.
That was the year he started collecting military surplus.
At first it made sense, even to Barbara Jean. Joe had learned welding at the community college; he bought pieces of vehicles and made trailers in the back yard. The trailers were popular, and he could make a lot of money with them. He used old car parts and scrap metal. Then he started buying other items, like 20-man tents he would patch and resell for a big profit. He fit the work in around everything else.
"It was insane," Barbara Jean said. "(Joe) was dealing surplus, welding trailers, and working a full-time job." Besides trying to build a nine-hole golf course at Point MacKenzie.
Not much work got done on the house in Spenard. It took years to get a door installed on the bathroom, and that happened only thanks to little Barbara. She brought her girlfriends on a tour of the house one day and included as one of the attractions her father, who was taking a bath in the tub. The door was installed the same day.
The house remained a basement construction site. The family lived in one big room for several more years. Salvage was already collecting far faster than it was being sold. But only when 5-year-old Barbara stepped on a nail did Barbara Jean issue another ultimatum.
"I said, "No more. I'm not going to live like this anymore. Either you are going to finish the upstairs of this house or I'm moving out. You can live with me in an apartment or finish the house.'
"We could afford to do it, and I could afford to move out. It was time to do it. It was past time."
She took the children to California for that summer of '68. Joe hired a man to work with him, kept going to work five days a week, and by the time Barbara Jean returned, he'd built the upstairs half of the house.
But the collecting only got worse. Three years later, he built a three-car garage. Six months after that, there wasn't room to park in it. The garage was full of junk. It always would be for the next 20 years, until Joe's son finally dug it out after his father's death.
"He liked owning it," Barbara Jean said. "He liked possessing things. He loved bidding against other people. He loved beating somebody else out in a deal, even if it was a bad deal for him. He was collecting, he wasn't running a business.
"It was like an addiction."
Young Barbara and Jim played in the junk. Their mother tried to carry on a normal life. She had parties after school. Her teacher friends brought their guitars, drank wine and sang all evening. Joe disappeared in the yard. He was charming and would tell his life story to anyone interested in military salvage. But he didn't like parties.
After 20 years together, Barbara Jean and Joe were still learning about each other. That wasn't necessarily good.
"He never entered into it, into that part of life," Barbara Jean said. "I didn't realize he didn't like to socialize. And he didn't realize I didn't like to live that way."
Rooms began to fill up with stuff. Bunny boots appeared in the basement bathtub. Then they spilled onto the floor. One day, the bathroom was suddenly full, from floor to ceiling, with bunny boots.
"He seemed to be influenced by what us kids were doing," Jim said. "If we were into skiing, he would buy skis. But not just a pair of skis. Hundreds and thousands of skis."
"And not matched," Barbara added.
Barbara Jean retired from teaching in 1976. No causeway or bridge had been built to Point MacKenzie, and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act had put the kibosh on the golf course. She just wanted to save her home in Spenard. She quit, at least partly, to fight back.
"The sheer mess got out of control," she said. "Things kept coming into the house that I kept trying to get out of the house. It was encroaching on the upstairs. It was awfully weird. I couldn't believe it was happening.
"I always wanted a really nice place to live, and never had it."
In 1981, Barbara Jean brought her whole Perkins clan up from California to build a house in Homer on the land where they had built a cabin years before. She thought that if she built a house, Joe would move and leave his stuff behind. It would take just one more ultimatum.
Barbara Jean really believed in her plan. She believed that Joe would choose her and a retirement in Homer over all that junk. She even made concessions to his unsociable nature. In her new house in Homer, she built in extra doors to the outside, like a door that led from the second floor master bedroom onto a catwalklike deck, so Joe would be able to slip away from people and wouldn't have to attend Barbara Jean's parties.
But there would be none of his salvage at the Homer house. Not a single tent, trailer, ski or helicopter pad. It was an ultimatum: her or the junk.
"I thought Doug would move with me," Barbara Jean said. "This was one time he didn't."
Barbara Jean started a new life on the bench above Homer, where the snow drifts deep in the winter and the view of Kachemak Bay, always changing, spreads itself below. Her daughter was 18, her son was 23, and both were leaving the nest. She met new friends and started a business of her own, making ceramics. Her relations with Joe remained friendly, and he could still call her on the telephone and make her giggle, even when he owed her money. They didn't get serious about divorce until just before he died, seven years later. But despite her new life, Barbara Jean had plenty of time to wonder why he drove her away. And why he refused to follow.
The cold explanation is simple enough. When faced with the choice, he chose what he wanted most to be surrounded by the stuff he'd collected. His time of sacrificing for his family was through.
But family members don't believe it was a conscious decision. They think he just let one thing follow another the same way he let surplus fill his home. Finally, it simply got out of control. It was impossible to move.
That's what Jim thinks.
"I don't think he had a chance," he said. "I don't think he had enough life left in him to move all this stuff out and move down to Homer. He was tired. He just couldn't do it anymore."
It might have been because of his childhood, Barbara Jean thinks. Maybe he couldn't let it go. Joe's family had been wealthy. They owned a California ranch that filled a valley. But they got involved in a long court fight over water rights, and when the Depression came, they lost everything. Maybe that was why Joe worried so much about never being a minute late for a job he hated, and almost never took a day off sick. Maybe that was why he needed to own so much.
"I don't understand it, either," she said. "I've thought about it and thought about it. Why did this happen? Why do people do that? He's not the only one. Why do people bring all this stuff into their yards?"
JIM DRIFTED BACK to his father's house occasionally, but Barbara was the last to really live at home. After her mother moved to Homer, she still had to finish her last year of high school in Anchorage, and before leaving for college she worked at the Sears Mall Book Cache for a year. Despite the chaos outside, she stayed in her basement bedroom, keeping her water bed, her forest-scene wallpaper and her Judy Collins albums sacrosanct from the deluge of junk that flooded the rest of her father's house, right up to her door.
It never breached her threshold. Barbara seemed to be the one member of the family her father couldn't impose upon.
(She still draws those sharp lines. There are clear limits to what Barbara will tolerate, as if after growing up in a house where military salvage blocked the hallways and crammed the closets, she has put up with enough impositions to last a lifetime.)
From the age of 9, Barbara was dealing with her father's customers.
"I had to let people in the house and talk to their kids or wives while they were shopping in the house," she said.
Barbara watched as her mother failed to hold the line, and must have thought about how she would do things differently.
"I just remember Mom always coming up with some new system," she said. "No stuff in this area. And then, slowly, stuff would start to come in. I remember the tractor being indoors, the year he built the tractor in the dining room. I never remember them being able to use the garage.
"The turning point, I remember, was when he bought all the helicopter landing pads, because he piled them right next to the back door, and he couldn't get stuff in and out."
She was a little girl when that happened, but from that time on, the piles began to stagnate. They stopped moving. Joe forgot where things were buried. He lost the arc welder--which is the size of a small car--and Jim found it only last year. Without the welder, he couldn't make trailers, and without being made into trailers, the helicopter pads languished. They were still there, a 15-foot-high pile of yellow metal, when Barbara and I started dating.
"I thought it was fun, because I used to play in it all the time, and occasionally we'd get great stuff," Barbara said. "But I remember being very embarrassed, as an older child, a teenager, about having all this stuff around. And frustrated trying to make things look nice, when I wanted to have a party or something, because all these large objects were around."
Joe was a playful father. He put a kite on a fishing rod for Barbara. He built a teeter-totter and a swing set for her on the homestead. He provided furniture for the school student lounge when she was in junior high at Steller Alternative School. In his daughter's eyes, he was a comic genius.
"He joked all the time," she said. "We would laugh all the way through dinner. He'd grab Mom, make her sit on his lap and tickle her, and make suggestive remarks, and she'd get embarrassed, which we thought was hilarious, of course."
But as Barbara grew up, the jokes weren't always funny anymore. Barbara Jean and Jim had always let the oddness in the house pass, but it bothered Barbara.
"I just would run away from the table crying at times because he teased me too much," she said. "I think both of them dealt with him by being extremely accepting and patient. . . . And I dealt with it by digging in and being stubborn and fighting."
After her mother moved out, Barbara hardly ever saw her father at home, even though they lived under one roof. She kept her bedroom and a corner of the basement living room clear of salvage. Her father lived upstairs. They shared the part of the kitchen that wasn't buried in junk, but didn't eat together.
Joe drove back and forth to the salvage auctions in Fairbanks, appearing and disappearing without warning. Barbara didn't know when he would be home until she heard his old moving van roar up in front of the house. He bought her a 1968 Buick Skylark, which she cleaned out and decorated by hanging a teddy bear from the rearview mirror. But then his own car broke down, and he drove hers to death.
Joe retired in 1983. He had always said he would really make the salvage business work when he had the time. His days would be free and there'd be no wife around to tell him where he could put his stuff.
"He had gone on a buying binge after she left," Barbara said. "He didn't have any compunction about moving stuff in pell-mell. The house filled up really fast after that.
"He would buy a box of mismatched shoes. He was buying everything."
The night she returned from her freshman year in college, Barbara found she had been defeated by the salvage. She came to my house that night in the rain, in tears of rage and sadness. She had gotten home and her room was full, she said. It was packed from floor to ceiling, and even the area she had cleared in the basement had filled in so the door wouldn't open. She gave her father a taste of her anger and spent the night at my parents' house. The next day, Joe cleared a place for her in her room--just a narrow clear space with an army cot under a towering pile of junk.
That summer she stopped going home. She stayed at her mother's house in Homer or slept in our guest room when she was in Anchorage, and let her own room fill up and plug with salvage like a gardener giving up on her garden and allowing it to go to seed.
Joe's own living space slowly pushed in on him. Finally he could just make it to the television and the half of his bed that he kept clear. The kitchen was filled so he always ate out, trading stories of salvage auction intrigue with his friends. They had developed friendships over decades, having cheated each other half a dozen times each. It proved a strong bond.
Joe stopped moving the stuff around much. He spent a lot of his time in front of the television eating ice cream and chocolate bars. He loved ice cream almost as much as salvage.
"He would buy the kind that he thought we would like least," Barbara said. "He came home with some really weird stuff."
"The man would bring home pistachio, or other oddball ice cream just so he could eat it all without anyone else taking any," said Jim.
They tell the story of the time he brought ice cream to the homestead. Joe was in town working while Barbara Jean and the children spent a sunny week on Point MacKenzie. It is a summer they talk about in a single voice of warm good nature, when they cut grass on the golf course with scythes. Each day when the tide came in, they would go to the water's edge to see if Joe had arrived. But day after day, even as they were running out of food, he didn't come.
Then, the day when their food was gone, and they had not gone to the bluff to watch for his approach, the three of them heard him coming. His shouting and whistling came through the woods, and they saw him crest the hill, running his stiff-legged run, with bags of groceries under each arm. He was roaring, "Get the bowls and spoons ready, I've got ice cream."
Jim saw him more than anyone else in Joe's last years.
"He was hanging out, being an old man, and just doing what he wanted, eating chocolate by the bar, the half-pound bar, and half gallons of ice cream.
"It's hard to imagine raising a family, and collecting salvage, and working for the civil service," Jim said. "Any one of those would be enough to put me into an ice cream fit."
THE SUMMER AFTER Joe died Barbara spent a day in her mother's loft in Homer, sorting through an old wooden suitcase of snapshots. Forty years of images were there in bundles the size of 1,000-page novels. There were birthday pictures of Barbara and Jim, looking like little versions of the adults I know, only wilder, happier, and unconscious of a world beyond the small trees of Spenard and the newly cleared fields of the family homestead on Point MacKenzie.
Farther back in time, before their births, there were pictures of mountains and water from Joe's and Barbara Jean's first trips to Alaska, the fading colors the only clue to some of the photographs' age. And even farther back were a few photos of their father as a sailor at war. He never told his children about those years, and Jim learned only from the pictures that his Dad was in the Navy and fought the Japanese.
In the loft, particles of dust floated gently downward through the sunbeams. I could think of better ways to spend a sunny weekend in Homer. The windows showed Kachemak Bay as blue as a prize ribbon and sparkling cleanly enough to drink. It called out with the familiar urgency of Alaska summer: Get it while you can.
A suitcase full of history, on the other hand, would always be there to look at, if anyone ever wanted to, which seemed doubtful. The past, I thought, doesn't change, except that the details thin out and blow away.
But Barbara's organizational instinct is strong, and once she starts a project she usually finishes it. She sorted photos as if conducting a business inventory. The pictures of family historic interest went in the A pile. The perfectly good but less than enthralling snapshots went in the B pile, bound for a return trip to the suitcase. And in the C pile, marked for oblivion, were the photos that she thought could have interest for only one man, her father, Joseph Douglas Hill.
At first I was interested in those pictures only because he had taken the care to save them for 30 years, and now they would finally be destroyed. What slice of the past would be lost? I studied them. There were pictures of trailers, and ditches, and empty lots. There were pictures of building materials, tractors, cables and machines. There were pickup trucks, tents, and open boats. Some had words on the back noting how cheaply he bought a set of metal shelves, or how much a duplex cost, or the exact specifications of the tires on a Jeep that caught his eye. Some were pure art, like a picture of rubble in a pickup truck with a woman standing by it, or a closeup of a Caterpillar blade, double-exposed with a picture of a car, with oily fingerprints on the back. Why in the world would anyone take these terrible pictures? Why would they keep them? They looked like some of the stuff I'd seen in New York at the Museum of Modern Art. I told Barbara so, only partly joking.
I saved the pictures. And now they seem to be growing on me. I'm starting to feel I know something about Joe Hill. He really liked this stuff, that's why he took pictures of it. The winches, tents and steel were real to him. He could count on them. The photographs say that.
So I started talking to the family. We had never talked about these things. I took a note pad and asked, "Why did he collect all that stuff?"
No one really had an answer. They remembered a good man who didn't often tell them how he felt, but showed he loved them by working his heart out. But he had a failing. He couldn't stop buying, and what he bought he couldn't part with.
"I don't think he ever made a conscious decision about it," said Barbara Jean. "He just went from day to day. When I talked to him about it, he would say, "I'm going to take care of it.' "
Last winter, at 62, Barbara Jean returned to the homestead for the first time in 15 years. It still can be reached only by boat, snowmachine or skis. The trees that were cut around the lake, allowing golfers to land in their float planes, have grown back up again.
Barbara Jean skied across the rolling, snowy land looking for signs of all the work she and Joe did there. Though they no longer owned the golf course property, the "clubhouse" cabin there remained. The fields, greens and fairways were overgrown. Skiing across the homestead, she couldn't at first find the land she and Joe had toiled to clear of acres of old birch and spruce trees. She knew where the clearings must be, but only recognized one of the fields that had turned back to forest by noticing that all the trees were the same height--just as tall as they could grow in the 15 years since she'd last been there.
Then she was able to pick out the scenes of their adventures together. There was the site where Joe set his dynamite and ran stiff-legged for cover. There was the hill where she set fire to the brush he knocked down with his reluctant tractors. And there was the now-overgrown fairway where they cut the grass with scythes, watched by little Jim, sitting in his red wagon.
"We had a lot of fun playing on that golf course," she said.
Last spring, Jim and Barbara and I sat in Joe's living room, drank beer and talked about their dad. Jim lives in the Spenard house now, but the property is tied up in the estate.
Jim contemplates making it a normal house, decorated for people to live there without piles of salvage. But he hasn't done it, yet. The floor is particle board, and there are a few items he can't give up just yet. And a few, like a set of huge, hydraulic machines with a purpose not easily discerned, which he still hasn't figured out how to move.
When his father died, Jim didn't seem outwardly upset. But that night, two years later, he told us he went to the city clerk's office the night Joe died demanding to know why his father had been ordered to clean up his yard. Out of character, he had gotten unreasonably angry with the clerk, who didn't know anything about it. Jim knew the order was sensible--everyone had wanted Joe to clean up for years--but he needed to demand answers of someone.
The day he died, Joe was unloading his treasures at the dump. It was as if it killed him to throw his stuff away.
"Here my Dad blew his heart out at the dump because he was trying to clear out 30 years of Alaskana from his yard," he said.
"It's funny that there's so much we don't know," Barbara said.
"Yeah," said Jim. "Why did Dad die?"