Ghost of Ithaca

September 6, 2011 

Before long, I will fly to New York to talk to students at the college where I earned a history degree in the 1960s. I am going to talk about Alaska -- writing about Alaska history.

I have not been in an Ithaca College classroom in 44 years and am wondering if I will see a ghost. A tall, trim ghost with glasses and long brown-blonde hair. A shy ghost -- my ghost.

If the ghost is among the students, he is going to get a chance to hear a white-haired man in a Jack Victor suit, a well-tailored Rip Van Winkle from Anchorage, who has been through incarnations in Boston, New York, San Francisco and Alaska that the ghost, whose routine included reading Herman Hesse, listening to the Rolling Stones, and day-dreaming about casual sex with beautiful coeds, never could have imagined.

The white-haired man majored in history because it was easy for him. His parents' bookcases were crammed with major works by major historians, which he read voraciously. It wasn't easy for him when he reached graduate school at Duke University where met the finest teacher of his college career -- Harold Parker. Dr. Parker taught him to dig deeper, and while digging deeper, he discovered historical research is like gold mining: lots of rocks, few nuggets.

What can the white-haired man in the suit offer the students? Maybe an answer to the question "Why dig?" If you are going to spend your days researching and writing, what do you get from all that work? On a good day, the excitement of exploration and discovery. Exploration of historical material -- discovery of stories worth telling, like the story of barber Mike Izzo, an Italian immigrant, who left New Haven, Conn., for the Klondike in 1898 and settled in Rampart. Poor Izzo was a man of constant sorrow who died alone, broke and far from home. His will, written in Italian, is heartbreaking yet illuminating because it reveals not only his fears but his origins and aspirations.

I hope the white-haired gent meets his audience's expectations; I hope the long-haired ghost is not put off by the suit. The ghost may be shocked, but the old guy still remembers what it was like to be young, still knows the lyrics to the Stones "Satisfaction."

-- Michael Carey

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