In an Anchorage airport washroom in 1969, a man was given a real character test
Part of a lawsuit weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. A question about the history of Anchorage or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Do you remember the cart problem? In the most common version of the scenario, you have the power to stop a streetcar from killing multiple people, but only if you hijack the streetcar to kill a single person. For a philosophical conundrum, the cart problem made a significant dent in pop culture and still appears regularly in cultural commentary.
The cart problem has several fundamental flaws. More importantly, the thought experience is functionally meaningless. While often entertaining to ponder, the scenario is too extreme. In a 2014 journal article, Christopher Bauman and his coauthors concluded: “Trolley problems do not engage the same psychological processes as other moral situations. In other words, your choice of cart problem says nothing about your real morals. Killing people with shopping carts is too far removed from everyday reality. Very few people find themselves in the singular control of a situation that could kill several people or a single person.
If you want to analyze your ethical standards and relative morals, the test should reflect a dilemma you might actually encounter. For example, what would you do if you found something valuable, maybe in an airport washroom?
Going to the airport is a routine activity for many Alaskans. Some visits are going well. The lines are short, the security is fast, the plane is on time. We all know how bad a trip to the airport can go, from excruciating waits and weather delays to all the other kinds of inconvenience.
As a frequent traveler, John L. Enicks hoped and probably expected that his July 1969 visit to Anchorage International Airport would be as calm as many. He checked in and headed to the appropriate terminal. Then he stopped at the bathroom – better than getting on the plane – and made a critical mistake. He emptied his pockets.
Maybe he was cleaning a stain. Or maybe he was doing an upstream inventory of his personal items. Perhaps he was distracted by the news, 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 the men’s washroom at Anchorage Airport and boarded his flight. He left behind his wallet and two envelopes.
The wallet contained $ 745. Inside each envelope was $ 1,000. This sum of money is a good sum today. For 1969, that was a shocking amount of money to carry. Adjusting for inflation, $ 2,745 in 1969 is equivalent to about $ 20,700 in 2021 dollars.
The Anchorage Daily Times ran an article on Enicks’ lost money on July 24, 1969. On the same page there was an advertisement for mattresses made in Alaska by Tipton’s Interiors of Spenard. A queen-size mattress and box spring combo cost only $ 119.95 (about $ 900 in 2021). With his lost money, Enicks could have bought 22 sets with the remaining change.
A few pages later, there was an advertisement for Kut Rate Kid, a parcel store at the intersection of Gambell Street and Fireweed Lane. Kut Rate Kid was the original location of the now windmill in Spenard. At $ 3.99 – around $ 30 today – for a fifth, Schenley whiskey was one of the cheaper alcohol options. A case of Budweiser cans was $ 5.99, around $ 45 today. With his lost money, Enicks could have bought 457 cases of Bud.
Affordable housing has been an issue in Anchorage for most of the city’s existence. But 1969 was well after the construction boom after World War II and before prices skyrocketed as oil money started pouring into the city. The classifieds in this same edition of The Times include a downtown two-room house for $ 25,000 (approximately $ 189,000 in 2021), a three-bedroom Spenard house for $ 30,000 (approximately $ 226,500 in 2021). and a Girdwood cottage for only $ 17,500 (approximately $ 132,000 in 2021). Enicks carried an amount with him that would have gone a long way towards a down payment on a property that would be worth much more today than the inflation rate indicates.
An exceptionally honest person quickly discovered the wallet and envelopes. He surely looked inside the wallet, checking to see if there was any ID or if someone had already emptied it. We do not know if he hesitated for a moment. What we do know is that he quickly handed over the whole lot to airport security.
The only identification in the wallet was the name of Enicks, which was paged several times without a response. Airport security official John Hynes checked Enicks’ name against passenger lists for today’s flights. However, Enicks’ Northwest Airlines flight had already taken off.
Hynes then contacted the plane. While still in the air, a flight attendant informed Enicks that his wallet – and money – had been safely recovered. Enicks hadn’t even realized his wallet was missing when he learned of his recovery. A cashier’s check for the full amount was sent to Enicks by registered mail.
For understandable reasons, Enicks did not give an interview or publicly declare his near loss or the reason he was carrying so much cash in the first place. These 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 money. It obviously would have taken Enicks hours to notice the missing wallet and envelopes. Money was a big temptation, maybe even a life-changing amount of money.
This brief anecdote raises two points. First, history is like life in that it is littered with both happy and tragic events. Sometimes it’s good to focus on the positive times, the people and things that promote joy, instead of desperation. Second, the choice of the unknown man is a real moral dilemma. What would you have done
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Bauman, Christopher W., Peter A. McGraw, Daniel M. Bartels, and Caleb Warren. “Revisiting External Validity: Concerns About Cart Problems and Other Sacrificial Dilemmas in Moral Psychology.” Personality and Social 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.
“The man didn’t even know he lost $ 2,745.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 24, 1969, 2.
Advertisement for Tipton interiors. Anchorage Daily Times, July 24, 1969, 2.