Richard Beneville

Nome

 

Our little town of nome

Welcome to our little town of Nome, our gold rush town, perched here on the southwestern edge of the Seward Peninsula. And it is gold that really began us; that’s our reason for being here. However, the population at the time, at the end of that first summer-- the discovery of gold was in 1898-- the population at the end of the summer of 1898 was about 30. The population of Nome at the end of the summer of 1899 was about 28,000. This place went bananas! And it was about as lawless as you can get. Today, our population is about 3800. It's 60% Native Alaskan. So we’re really a very big village. In front of you is St. Joseph’s Catholic church-- goes back to the gold rush, to the population of the time, about 25,000 or so when it was built. And then the gold rush began to peter out, and they couldn’t afford to heat it, and so they put it over on a piece of tundra, where our museum now is. ... Everything’s built up on stilts in Nome, 'cause of this permafrost I talked about. You can see daylight under the church here. These are dredge buckets, that have to do with gold mining…. You’ll see them on the edge of town. ...All of this is to keep a space under the house so that you keep an air space between the building and the tundra. So you don’t sink; otherwise you melt the permafrost and you get a mess. And that’s what’s happening: we have areas, depending on exposure, where permafrost is melting. Thawing is the word. 

 
  Beneville near the Nome jetty.

Beneville near the Nome jetty.

Nome's military history

To your left, behind these buildings, you can see the wind farm, and there’s also Anvil Mountain. ... Now, up there on the hillside, 'cause it’s winter and that’s where they’ll be, is a group of musk ox. ... Those structures on the top [of Anvil Mountain], that’s part of the White Alice Distance Early Warning system. It’s a Cold War radar installation. And when it comes to the military, Nome has a military history going back almost to the very beginning. During the gold rush, they were our police; when we were a territory; to World War II. There was a lot of paranoia about the Japanese coming in; the Japanese invaded the Aleutians, and occupied, and bombed, in whatever, 1941, or 1940-something. But it was here that we had [the] lend-lease [program during World War II]. It was an extension of the convoys that went across the North Atlantic, keeping Britain in the game, and keeping them afloat in food-- 'cause they couldn't get a lot of stuff in to Britain-- and war material. And so we extended into the west, and it was aircrafts from Russia. Russia was our fellow ally, not our enemy, to start with.

I've gone this far north...

Anyway, my ambition had been the theater. And I ... went to university in Indianapolis for a couple of years-- I was in rehearsal; my grades stunk; and I realized I had to do what I was meant to do, which was be on Broadway! And I was good! I learned to tap dance when I was six, so I knew what I was doing. So I left school, and I moved to New York. Lived on-- West 73rd Street, was my first apartment. … In any case, after a few years I got my Equity [actor's union] card; did theater down south; and I got cast as an understudy in Cabaret. ... Then I did the role [in Cabaret] in other productions, many many many times.  ... I was in Fiddler [on the Roof] twice on Broadway. … Then, one might ask, "What the hell are you doing here in Nome, Alaska?" The answer is: I drank. I drank the career away; that which I really wanted all my life, and strove for.. all my life was-- and I had achieved it-- and it took me fifteen years. And it took me about three years to drink it all away. I was a raging alcoholic. As I look back on it, friends and family did an intervention. And next thing I know, I’m on an airplane with a one-way ticket to Anchorage,  Alaska, to visit my brother Burt, who ran Merrill-Lynch’s brokerage company. Oh, now I’m in Alaska, and I’m about as out of my element as a human can be, raging alcoholic to boot. And so my brother introduced me to ... the president of the Alaska Commercial Company, which had stores all over the state. It turned out he was from New York, and he was Jewish. I could talk to the guy! We could talk! So at the end of the meeting, he said, "Beneville, I like your style. ... We got an opening in Point Barrow, or an opening in Cordova." And I remember thinking to myself, I remember saying to myself, "I’ve gone this far north to go somewhere south?" Cordova sounded vaguely Mexican, "Where’s that…? BARROW!" Barrow it was. So I got on an airplane and I arrived in Barrow, Alaska, February 1st, 1982. It was 11 in the morning, and it was the middle of the night. The snow-- it was about 40 degrees below zero-- and the snow was blowing up.

 

"that white man's crazy"

So I took over managing the stereo and furniture department at this very nice grocery-slash-department store, twelve hundred miles from the North Pole. One day in April, I’m selling something to a marvelous old Eskimo couple. Thomas and Myrtle Akootchook. And as I’m selling the item, my grandmother’s words of thirty years before... When I was a little boy, and she’d get mad at me-- we’d watch this, before the air force, when we’d watch the Subway Series, the Yankees and the Dodgers-- she was born in Brooklyn, an avid Bums fan-- I’d root for the Yankees just to piss her off, 'cause was so fun when she’d get mad. … And she’d look at me, and she’d go: “You know, Dick, one of these days, with your mouth, you’re gonna end up selling freezers to the Eskimos!” And son of a gun, if that wasn’t exactly what I wasn’t doing! To Thomas and Myrtle, this wonderful old Eskimo couple, who needed a freezer, for God’s sake! Years later, I had tea with them at their house, and Myrtle said, “Richard! Do you remember that day we met, at AC Company?" And I said yeah. And she said, “Thomas looked at you, and you were selling that thing, and Thomas poked me in the side, and said, ‘Ee, Myrtle, that white man’s crazy. He’s laughing and crying at the same time!’" Because my life was before me; I could see it like it was as clear as clear could be.

"The tundra is absolutely beautiful, it’s emerald green... in the fall, as it turns, it’s all those colors… but it’s all at your feet, and you look down, and it’s a carpet, a never-ending carpet that covers the mountains and the hills, and it’s absolutely gorgeous."

 

Climate Change on the Seward Peninsula

I tend to look at the potential benefits of climate change, from an international and global kind of point of view. The reality is with climate change here, a lot of things happen. The land sinks; you end up with very boggy land; what lives here will move, because the condition will be different; the ocean is warming; so there will be different kind of flora, fauna; they eat different things; the salmon will be going further and further north. It’s all gonna change.

 

Cape No Name

Now we’re going east, along the Bering Sea coast. This is the Bering Sea. In front of us, that point of land that you see sticking out is called Cape Nome. It is from which we get our name: a map printed in 1857 indicated that cape-- it says, "Cape," in parentheses, "(No Name)." End parentheses. Four years later, the map is printed and it says, "Cape Nome." That’s the story, anyway, and that’s how we became known as Nome, Alaska. Our first name was Anvil City. Because of Anvil Mountain. And Anvil Mountain gets its name because it’s a rock outcropping, and it looks, from the right angle, like a blacksmith’s anvil. This is the east end of town. Nome isn’t very big. Those are fancy houses. I’ll show you my house… It ain’t fancy.

 

choosing nome

Oh, I love it. Every now and then, we have the opportunity as we get older, and you get a moment where you can look back on your life. You can look back on the good decisions and recognize them; and the bad decisions, and you can certainly recognize them. Well, I’ve done that, and I’ll tell you what: this is one of the best decisions I ever made. It fits like a glove.