Alaska Life

In the Anchorage airport in 1969, a man was confronted with a true test of morality

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Do you remember the trolley problem? In the most common version of the scenario, you have the power to stop a trolley car from killing multiple people, but only if you divert the trolley to kill a single person. For a philosophical conundrum, the trolley problem made a significant dent in pop culture and still regularly appears in cultural commentary.

The trolley problem possesses several fundamental flaws. Most significantly, the thought experiment is functionally meaningless. While often entertaining to ponder, the scenario is too extreme. In a 2014 journal article, Christopher Bauman and his co-authors concluded, “Trolley problems do not engage the same psychological processes as other moral situations.” In other words, your trolley problem choice says nothing about your actual morality. Killing people with trolleys is too far removed from day-to-day reality. Exceedingly few people find themselves in singular control of a situation that could either kill many people or one person.

If you want to analyze your ethical standards and relative morality, then the test needs to reflect a dilemma that you might actually encounter. For example, what would you do if you found something valuable, perhaps in an airport restroom?

Going to the airport is a routine activity for many Alaskans. Some visits go smoothly. The lines are short, security is quick, the plane is on time. We all know how wrong a trip to the airport can go, from excruciating waits to weather delays to every other manner of inconvenience.

As a frequent traveler, John L. Enicks hoped and likely even expected his July 1969 visit to Anchorage International Airport to be as uneventful as so many others. He checked in and headed toward the appropriate terminal. Then, he stopped by the restroom — better than going on the plane — and made a critical mistake. He emptied his pockets.

Maybe he was cleaning a stain. Or maybe he was conducting a preflight inventory of his personal items. Maybe he was distracted by current events, like the Apollo 11 astronauts who had not yet returned to Earth. Enicks never gave a public explanation for what happened that day. Whatever the reason, he left that Anchorage airport men’s room and boarded his flight. He left behind his wallet and two envelopes.

The wallet contained $745. Inside each envelope was $1,000. That much money is a nice amount today. For 1969, it was a shocking amount of cash to carry around. Adjusting for inflation, $2,745 in 1969 is roughly $20,700 in 2021 dollars.

The Anchorage Daily Times published an article about Enicks’ lost cash on July 24, 1969. On the same page, there was an advertisement for Alaska-made mattresses from Tipton’s Interiors of Spenard. A queen-sized mattress and box spring combo was only $119.95 (about $900 in 2021). With his lost cash, Enicks could have bought 22 sets with change left over.

A few pages later, there was an ad for Kut Rate Kid, a package store at the intersection of Gambell Street and Fireweed Lane. Kut Rate Kid was the original location of the windmill now in Spenard. At $3.99 — about $30 today — for a fifth, Schenley’s whiskey was one of the cheapest liquor options. A case of Budweiser cans was $5.99, about $45 today. With his lost cash, Enicks could have bought 457 cases of Bud.

Affordable housing has been an Anchorage issue for most of the city’s existence. But 1969 was well after the post-World War II construction boom and before prices skyrocketed as oil money began to pour into the city. Classifieds from that same edition of the Times include a two-room downtown home for $25,000 (about $189,000 in 2021), a three-bedroom Spenard home for $30,000 (about $226,500 in 2021), and a Girdwood chalet for only $17,500 (about $132,000 in 2021). Enicks was carrying on his person an amount that would have gone a long way toward a down payment on a property that would be worth far more today than the rate of inflation would indicate.

An exceptionally honest individual quickly discovered the wallet and envelopes. He surely looked inside the billfold, checking if there was identification or whether someone had already emptied it. We do not know if he hesitated for a moment. What is known is that he promptly handed the entire lot over to airport security.

The only identification in the wallet was Enicks’ name, which was paged several times without response. The airport’s chief security officer, John Hynes, checked Enicks’ name against the passenger rolls for that day’s flights. However, Enicks’ Northwest Airlines flight had already departed.

Hynes then had the plane contacted. While still in the air, a flight attendant informed Enicks that his wallet — and money — had been safely recovered. Enicks had not even realized that his wallet was missing when he learned of its recovery. A cashier’s check for the entire amount was sent to Enicks by registered mail.

For understandable reasons, Enicks did not grant an interview or otherwise go on the record regarding his near loss or why he was carrying so much money in the first place. Those details could have been interesting but are ultimately secondary to the ethical choice part of the story.

The unidentified man who found the wallet could easily have pocketed the cash. It would have evidently taken hours for Enicks to notice the missing wallet and envelopes. The money was a significant temptation, maybe even a life-changing amount of cash.

This brief anecdote raises two points. First, history is like life in that it is littered with events both happy and tragic. Sometimes it is good to focus on positive moments, the people and things that foster joy, instead of despair. Second, the choice by the unknown man is a real-life moral dilemma. What would you have done?

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Key sources:

Bauman, Christopher W., Peter A. McGraw, Daniel M. Bartels, and Caleb Warren. “Revisiting External Validity: Concerns about Trolley Problems and Other Sacrificial Dilemmas in Moral Psychology.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 8, no. 9 (2014): 536-554.

“CPI Inflation Calculator.” United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm.

Kut Rate Kid advertisement. Anchorage Daily Times, July 24, 1969, 5.

“Man Didn’t Even Know He’d Lost $2,745.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 24, 1969, 2.

Tipton’s Interiors advertisement. Anchorage Daily Times, July 24, 1969, 2.

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