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They built Alaska on whiskey and dynamite

Jerry Smith and Kristie Hocking were married in 1958 and divorced in 1959. In 2009, they reconnected. They live together in Midtown. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Jerry Smith and Kristie Hocking have more grandchildren and great-grandchildren than will fit in their Anchorage house. Which is interesting, because they haven't yet celebrated their second anniversary.

They were married in 1958 but divorced in 1959. Then, in 2009, she found him again on the internet.

"I told her she had the right to kill me," Smith said. "I had some rusting butcher knives, because I didn't want to die too swift."

"He was hilarious on the computer," she said. "I said, 'I don't remember you being that funny.' He said, 'I don't remember that, either.'"

Hocking was living outside Alaska at the time, but decided to visit.

"I knew he wasn't an ax murderer," she said.

"I kept that covered up," Smith said.

A faded wedding photo from the Moose Lodge in Palmer sits in the living room — a relative fortunately kept it—but there is no updated color version.

"At this point, who needs to get married?" Hocking said.

"It would just ruin our finances," Smith said.

Including that first marriage to each other, Smith has been married a total of five times and Hocking six times.

"We're not very good at it, let's put it that way," Smith said.

A photo at Jerry Smith and Kristie Hocking’s home shows their marriage in 1958. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

When I asked what caused that first divorce, Smith gallantly said, "I was certifiably insane." But I suspect alcohol and wild living had something to do with it.

Smith quit drinking 32 years ago, near the end of a career blasting tunnels and highway cuts.

"Alaska was built on whiskey and dynamite, especially in the mining industry and rock work," he said.

Jerry Smith, 83, grew up on his family's horse-powered farm near Palmer. His parents arrived in 1935 from Wisconsin and signed a mortgage for a house and barn built by President Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the Depression-era Matanuska Colony.

Kristie Hocking's family had helped create the colony. She is 75. She said her grandfather was M.D. Snodgrass, who arrived in Alaska in 1907 and started the experimental farms that inspired the project.

Smith learned to drive a tractor when he was 9 years old, when the family upgraded from the horse team, and learned to fix a motor while working on a pump jack that watered 350 head of cattle.

They loved the pioneer farming country. After school they chased escaped Snodgrass family pigs or hunted rabbits. They took long walks on country roads to swim.

"The whole Valley changed so much. That's why we don't live up there anymore," Smith said. "Some of the beautiful hay fields and potato fields, there's house after house and driveways. And we used to roam that whole river bank."

A framed photo of Jerry Smith and Kristie Hocking is displayed in their Anchorage home.  (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

When Smith graduated from high school he got a job underground at the Jonesville Mine earning top wages, $2.21 an hour. He came out black with coal dust every day, from foot to head, and soaking wet.

"I loved it. Good money. Warm," he said. "It was the thing to do in those days."

Smith said the mine tunnel went five miles horizontally into a mountain north of Palmer. Blasting and cutting brought down coal from above. A lot of men were hurt and some died.

"They put you in there with somebody who knew what the hell they were doing and you either learned or they got rid of you," Smith said.

He left to serve in the Marines toward the end of the Korean War, returning in 1957 to go back to the mine. But when Anchorage switched to natural gas the mine closed and all the miners lost their jobs.

Smith went to work on the Alaska Railroad as a gandy dancer. I asked what a gandy dancer does.

"It's just what it says—gandy dancing," he said. (That is, working on the ties and rails.)

Around that time he met Kristie. He drove her home from babysitting his friends' children. At least that's how he remembers it.

I asked if he was a bit wild at the time. "No, not me," he said.

"He was, too. He was a party animal," Hocking said.

She knows what one looks like. Hocking worked most of her life as a bartender or waitress around Alaska and the western states.

"I always figured tending bar you had to drink along with them so you could put up with them. And besides, it was expected," she said. "You got paid to party."

Both Kristie Hocking and Jerry Smith grew up in the Palmer area.  (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

She said she still enjoys going to Las Vegas, but she is slowing down.

Blasting crews drank on the job, Smith said. He recalled jugs coming out of workers' pickups as soon as they got off the cliffs above the Seward Highway when they were blasting the road wider south of Anchorage during the early 1980s.

He ran a crew that blasted a 3-mile tunnel for a jet fuel pipeline from Whittier to Anchorage. The shift that made the most distance through the mountain in a week would receive a case of whiskey and a couple of cases of beer, he said.

"It's footage that pays the bills," he said.

All these stories have become part of an old couple's warm, funny patter. Smith said he never lets the truth ruin a good story.

"People say, 'You should write a book,'" Hocking said. "I'm not going to write a book and embarrass all my kids and grandkids to death."

"I got to wait till the statute of limitations runs out on a few things," Smith joked.

But he went on to say, "If I had to do it all over again, I would do it all over again. I think everything I did I had to do, otherwise I'd still be out there trying to do it. Now we're pretty much at peace here, and pretty comfortable."

Hocking said, "I don't think I'd probably change nothing. I had to learn all the lessons the hard way. The school of hard knocks. And you too, kinda, huh?"

"Yep," Smith said, chuckling. "I never was a quick learner."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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