I'm not sure if it's history, lore or another tattooing on the body of Americana, but one fact is certain: I'm seeing it closer than anyone. In the basement of the house next door, the world's largest and most exhaustive collection of information on Easter Island is being boxed in preparation for a six-mile haul to the Smithsonian for permanent storage. Delivery is this week.
The boxer is Prof. Charles Love, 42, an anthropologist and geologist who teaches at Western Wyoming College in Rock Springs, Wyo., the state's fourth largest town. How this professor, Easter Island and the Smithsonian-bound treasure came to be next door is a tale of high intellectual romance, one that shouldn't be lost on the back shelves of scholarship. If I had to say who was closer to the truth of the ages, the archeologists who get mud on their hands or the historians who conjecture in their office about the meaning of the mud, I'd choose the archeologists.
That was the choice of Bob Alexander, my neighbor for the past decade and who, until his death at 80 last August, knew more about the literature of Easter Island than anyone on earth. That grand-scale claim is supported by such world-class judges as Charlie Love, who apprenticed under William Mulloy, the legendary Wyoming anthropology professor known as the only researcher who made repeated field trips to Easter Island from the 1950s through the '70s. Mulloy was part of the heralded Norwegian expedition that Thor Heyerdahl led in 1955.
As an amateur judge of Easter Island authoritativeness, I would go along with the reputation earned by Bob Alexander. In 10 years of living-room conversations with him -- he had vinegary opinions on world issues and wry commentaries on neighborhood ones -- I don't recall ever asking a question about Easter Island that did not receive a definitive, annotated and, if needed, footnoted answer. It is true that my one-part questions often received four-part replies and that on occasion I had to lie on the sofa when the follow-up came for the next and-that-reminds-me-of-the-time anecdote. Standing, sitting or lying, I knew that in this city of experts, here really was one.
Bob Alexander, who moved into his house in 1945 with his wife Zoe, served for 25 years with the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was born in Japan to missionary parents. Harvard University Press published his book "Kokuji," which explained the relationship between Chinese and Japanese linguistics. After visiting Easter Island in 1975, he began his collecting spree.
The major legacy is a bibliography that has nearly 3,000 entries of articles, papers, tapes, photographs, books and other material on the subtropical island that is the most isolated habited place on earth. At the Smithsonian, Adrienne Kaeppler, the curator for oceanic ethnology in the anthropology section of the Museum of Natural History, elatedly reports that the gift of the Alexander collection has created "a feeling of excitement. It is quite unusual for a gift like this to come in unannounced."
Announcements were a form of needless self-adventuring to Bob Alexander. They would have taken him outside his scholarly world of libraries and his basement retreat. His shelves there were lined with Russian, Czechoslovakian, French and Japanese books on the barren rock island that is 12 miles long and 2,300 miles west of Chile and 2,100 miles this side of Tahiti. Whatever anyone could want to know about what others know about Easter Island has passed through Alexander's hands. His bibliography carries the light: an article from a travel club on "Christmas Day on Easter Island"; the heavy: an Australian account of an "excavation of a rectangular house on the east rim of Rano Kau Volcano"; The obscure: an entomologist's paper on "the orthopteroid insects of Easter Island"; the popular: John Dos Passos' book "Easter Island: Island of Enigmas."
Through their mutual devotion to scholarship, Alexander and Love bonded in a rare friendship. The Wyoming professor has been spending the early summer in the Alexander basement sorting and filing what his older guide began 10 years ago.
In 1982, Love delivered an address at the Smithsonian that helps explain his devotedness: "One of the major mysteries about Easter Island -- since it has enormous stone statues and enormous ceremonial centers -- stems from what I would consider to be a western viewpoint. We, in our minds, don't want to allow tribal people the ability to do impressive things, least of all in isolation. They aren't supposed to carve 85-ton statues and move them four miles. They're not supposed to haul huge stones around or make 15-foot-high walls . . . Not only that, but they made 300 of these ceremonial plazas and carved nearly 1,000 statues. Nobody ever told them they weren't supposed to do that."
People probably told Bob Alexander that he wasn't supposed to become the world's librarian on Easter Island, or that at least he should have waited for a government program or a foundation grant to begin the work. Like an archeologist, he dug deep into his own best instincts. What he found was the joy of his life and the surprise of the neighborhood.