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Alaskans shrug at threat

N. Korea missile latest in long line of perils

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Photographs by The New York Times/RUTH FREMSON

Gary Melven, a Vietnam War veteran and Alaska native, stands outside his emergency survival supplies store in Anchorage. He remembers the Cuban missile crisis and radar sites that once watched for Russian missiles. “I’ve lived a good life, so if something happens, it happens,” he said.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- In Washington, the news that North Korea may have developed an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting Alaska set off a wave of anxiety.

But in Alaska -- already home to survivalists, end-of-the-world preppers and all-around tough cookies -- the latest geopolitical hubbub is being taken in stride.

"You've always got to keep your edge," said Robert Allison, 60, yanking up a sleeve to show off his U.S. Airborne Infantry tattoo, etched into a bicep.

More than one out of every eight adults in Alaska is, like Allison, a military veteran -- the highest concentration in the nation. Another 6 percent or so of Alaskans are on active duty or part of an active-duty family.

Both numbers are a legacy of the huge Army and Air Force bases in the state, and the fact that many people who were sent there for their tours of duty never left. Proximity to the Far East is a given: Russia is 55 miles from the farthest western edge, and if you jump on a plane from Anchorage, Miami is farther away than Tokyo.

Anybody old enough to remember the Cold War, when Alaska was for decades at the front lines of national defense with an array of listening posts and ready-to-scramble air bases just across the Arctic Circle from the Soviets, also already knows the feeling of being a hot nuclear target. Some people recalled it as just something that came with the territory. They shrugged it off.

"I've lived a good life, so if something happens, it happens," said Gary Melven, 68, a Vietnam War veteran -- U.S. Navy -- and son of a World War II infantryman. Melven was a boy in Anchorage when the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 took the world to the brink of nuclear war, and the famous Distant Early Warning Line radar sites of Alaska and Canada were straining for signs of incoming missiles.

"It was just background, growing up," said Melven, the manager of Eagle Enterprises, a store south of downtown Anchorage that sells emergency survival supplies for fishing crews, pilots and outdoor enthusiasts.

"I was more interested in riding my bike," he added.

To hang out for a few days in some of Anchorage's military surplus and survival gear stores is to hear a lot of casual fatalism like that. People who are used to calculating risk said they saw little reason for increased alarm now from North Korea. City officials, from the mayor on down in the state's largest metropolitan area, have also said they were seeing little sign of panic or fuss.

"What are we going to do up here that we're not already doing? They're not going to evacuate Anchorage. We have more to worry about from an earthquake and tsunami," said John Humphries, 56, a former military helicopter pilot who is now an investigator for the state medical examiner.

Humphries was shopping on a recent morning at 907 Surplus, a military supply store in a strip mall east of downtown, where a stream of men and women -- many in uniform, stationed just down the street at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson -- were moving by on a recent morning.

At 907 Surplus you can buy a green sniper scarf, a biochemical gas-mask canister or a pair of subzero-rated Army boots. Marpat Woobies, camouflage-colored wet-weather poncho liners beloved by Marines and great for backcountry Alaska, too, go for $30. But if you have to ask what they are, then you're probably shopping in the wrong place.

The store's co-owners, David Chatterton and Jeremy Wise -- both Army veterans themselves -- said they had heard little concern from their customers about North Korea. So-called preppers, mostly civilians, are part of the market in shops like theirs, but prepping -- laying up emergency food, weaponry and shelter supplies -- goes only so far when it comes to a potential strike by an atomic warhead.

"They're prepared, but you can't really prepare for a nuclear attack," Chatterton said.

"Totally business as usual," added Wise, 30, who is originally from the Galveston, Texas, area and left the Army as a sergeant.

A spirit of come-what-may is helped out by a belief in the wisdom and ability of commanders and decision-makers to avert a crisis, which many people in the shops expressed in interviews. Humphries, for example, said he fully believed a combination of military and diplomatic maneuvers would head things off with North Korea.

Jim Gorski, who spent 22 years as a Navy pilot, said the psychology of calculating risk is also different if you have experienced real threats in your life. He called it "the bunker question."

If a concrete bunker is protecting your aircraft, he said, which side of the bunker do you stand on? If a bomb falls and you're on the other side, you're protected from the blast, but if you're on the side where the bomb falls, you're toast. And since you'll never be able to predict the exact trajectory of a bomb's fall, Gorski said, squinting into a bright afternoon sun as he walked near a downtown Anchorage park, then worrying about it becomes pointless.

"You start worrying about everything, you'll go crazy and you won't enjoy life," he said.

Some Alaska residents and visitors are concerned. Marc Mueller-Stoffels, a physicist at the University of Alaska, works on energy issues -- a research area that he said got some funding from the military. He said he thought Alaska was a target in the Cold War, and maybe now in the North Korean standoff, partly because of geography and the proximity to potential enemies. But he said the federal government also made the state a greater target by concentrating military research and presence there.

The importance of Alaska as a military pivot point started in World War II, when the Aleutian Islands were invaded by Japan. The soldiers and pilots who poured into Alaska during that conflict, and the roads and bases built for them, in turn became foundations of the Cold War response in the years that followed.

"It's a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy, since they put some more or less important military infrastructure up here," said Mueller-Stoffels, who was taking his 11-month-old daughter, Anna, for a walk in downtown Anchorage.

Chatterton at 907 Surplus also finds comfort in the idea of justice and retribution -- that assured destruction would rain down on North Korea if its leaders made such a foolish mistake as to attack. "If it did happen, we would definitely be avenged," he said.

SundayMonday on 07/16/2017

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