Making a Volcano BLOW
Porky Bickar and the Mt. Edgecumbe Charade
Throughout the United States, the first day of April is traditionally known as a day of humor and merriment. That’s why it’s called April Fool’s Day. But April 1, 1974 did not start out as a typical April Fool’s Day in Sitka. After more than 500 years of silence, Mt Edgecumbe, the extinct volcano at the edge of the city, suddenly started to belch thick, black smoke. While a volcanic eruption in Alaska is rarely cause for much alarm, the smoking Mr. Edgecumbe was an exception. It was located less than 13 miles from the center of Sitka. If the volcano was erupting, it meant a fiery end to the city of Sitka.
“There were a lot of concerned people,” stated Oliver “Porky” Bickar, who remembered the day well. “No one knew very much about geology and suddenly, right on our doorstep, was this plume of black smoke coming from an extinct volcano. It did not make for a pleasant morning.”
Within 20 minutes, Alaska Airlines rerouted one of its planes over the volcano’s cone to take a look. It was probably not a pleasant ride for the pilot. If the volcano had exploded the plane would have been found itself blasted out to sea along with two or three cubic miles of ash. Or the plane might have been burned to a cinder in a matter of seconds as the mountain spewed molten lava miles up into the atmosphere like a gigantic Roman candle.
On this day, however, neither happened. There was too much smoke for the pilot to see anything so, as the residents of Sitka panicked, the Coast Guard was called. A helicopter was immediately dispatched to overfly the cone of the volcano. Everyone was on edge, waiting for the helicopter to report back from its overflight.
Then came the news. When the Coast Guard helicopter came within sight of the cone, the pilot and crew immediately radioed back the fateful words, “We’ve been had.”
There, on the lip of the cone, was a sight they had never imagined, even in their wildest dreams. In a large circle were 150 burning automobile tires and stamped out in the snow in painted-black letters 150 feet tall were the words APRIL FOOL.
The eruption of Mt. Edgecumbe didn’t last long, about thirty minutes. But during those thirty minutes the local police and fire department were deluged with calls. There was near panic until word came from the helicopter.
It didn’t take the residents of Sitka long to figure out who was responsible for the deed. They were the ones who were laughing the hardest. Led by Oliver “Porky” Bickar, the culprit was actually a group of Sitkans who called themselves the Dirty Dozen, in their words, “a group of dedicated citizens for the betterment of Sitka.”
Bickar, a long-time resident of Sitka, was well known for his practical jokes. Once word leaked out that he was responsible, there was a general sigh of relief — followed by a burst of hearty laughter.
The Dirty Dozen had been planning this particular April Fool’s gag for more than three years. Weather had stalled them on two previous occasions but, in 1974, they were finally able to perpetrate the deed. Because they could not find a pilot locally, they were forced to secure a helicopter out of Petersburg. “We had a local helicopter,” Bickar recalled, “but the guy chickened out on us. We even had an FAA approved flight plan, all legal, and this guy wouldn’t go. I accused him of being chicken and he said ‘Yeah.’ So we got a real daredevil, Earl Walker of Temsco out of Petersburg. He thought it was a great idea and he showed up ready to haul tires and laugh hard.”
The deed took several hours. There were so many tires that the helicopter had to make two trips. On the first trip, Porky went along and began setting the tires in a huge semi-circle. Then, before the chopper came back with the second load, he began stamping out the letters in the snow and painting them black. When all of the tires had been stacked, he stuffed them full of smoke bombs, sterno and oily rags. After he had ignited the tires he “laughed all the way back to Sitka.”
As the news of the gag spread across Alaska, the rest of the state laughed heartily as well. It was written up in the Anchorage and Fairbanks papers and the story was picked up by the national press. Eventually even nationally magazines like Sport’s Illustrated and Reader’s Digest ran the story. It was an admirable bit of American humor and a classic of Alaskan absurding.
But not everyone was laughing. As soon as it became known that Porky Bickar and the Dirty Dozen were responsible, Porky got a rude letter from the Sierra Club in San Francisco. In no uncertain terms, the environmental group stated that it was going to “take action” against him and the Dirty Dozen for the “desecration” of Mt. Edgecumbe by the “emission of particulate matter by means of combustion.”
Four days later Porky Bickar returned a letter to the Sierra Club stating that the release of particulates was justified because it had been an early spring in Sitka and there had “been an unusual amount of sand fleas and tse-tse flies” in the area and, as everyone knew, “the only way to eliminate these critters is to smoke them out.” Other parts of the letter cannot be quoted as Bickar, formerly a logger, was not restrained in his opinion of the Sierra Club. As a matter of record, “I never heard back from them,” said Porky. “I guess they lost my address.”
But the saga of the April Fool’s day eruption of Mt. Edgecumbe did not simply pass into the pages of Alaskans history. There was more to come. As a tribute to their exploit, members of the Dirty Dozen immediately began using a drawing of a smoking Mt. Edgecumbe as their stationery logo. Bickar, blatantly violating the rules of the Dirty Dozen, “a secret organization,” sent some of his own photos of the deed to Alaska Magazine. The photos were reprinted in the July 1974 edition of the magazine. Then Bickar went so far as to appear on a local radio program telling of the deed, yet another blatant violation of the rules of the “secret society.”
In mock outrage, the Dirty Dozen called a special meeting on Halloween Night in 1975 to “expel Porky” because he was accused “of advertising a secret organization by radio.” The expulsion motion passed. It was then moved to “burn and hang Porky in effigy.” The chairwoman, however, moved to amend the motion to remove the word “in effigy.” She suggested they bypass the effigy and “just use the real thing.” There was much “heated discussion” but the amendment was dropped because the Dirty Dozen “might get in some kind of trouble with [Porky’s] wife.” Not to be denied, the chairman offered to call Porky’s wife to see if she cared. The motion passed and each of the Dirty Eleven, as they now called themselves, volunteer to light the match. The minutes of the meeting closed with a special thanks to “Chairwoman Revard for buying the beer for the meeting.”
Right on schedule, the next day, at high noon, an effigy of “Big Brag Bickar” was hung in downtown Sitka. The balance of the Dirty Dozen, many of them dressed in mock Ku Klux Klan outfits, gathered outside Porky’s business, Porky’s Equipment, Inc., to toss gasoline on the effigy and set it ablaze. It was a fine demonstration and photos of the event were published in the Sitka Shopper.
As an interesting historical footnote, Mt. Edgecumbe was named by Captain James Cook on May 2, 1778, probably after a mountain of the same name at the entrance to Plymouth Harbor in England or, possibly, for George, the First Earl of Edgecumbe. But the cape on which the extinct volcano sits had previously been named by F. A. Murelle and Don Juan de la Bodega y Quadra three years earlier on August 16, 1775. These Spanish scientists named the cape “Cabo del Engano,” which, appropriately, translates as “Cape of Deceit.”
Steve Levi has more than 80 books in print or on Kindle. He specializes in books on the Alaska Gold Rush and impossible crimes. An impossible crime is one in which the detective has to solve HOW the crime was committed before he can go after the perpetrators. In the MATTER OF THE DESERTED AIRLINER, an airplane with no pilot, crew or passengers lands at Anchorage International Airport. As the authorities are pondering the circumstances of the arrival, a ransom demand is made for $25 million in diamonds and precious stones. Chief of Detectives for the Sandersonville, North Carolina, Police Department, Captain Heinz Noonan, is visiting his in-laws in Anchorage when he is called onto the case. For the next 36 hours, he pieces together the puzzle of how the crime was committed. But can he solve the crime, free the hostages and locate the perpetrators before the ransom is paid? hhttps://www.authormasterminds.com/steve-levi