The things that are left behind

On a Wednesday morning in early August, Ron Mullins made breakfast for his elderly mother then went outside to tinker with one of the many trucks in the front yard of his family’s Mountain View home.

Mullins, 51, lived in the bright green, two-story house with his mother Alma, her grandson Ralph Nayokpuk and Lana Paul, who helped Ron care for his mother. He always cooked breakfast, Paul said. Alma preferred hotcakes and coffee with one sugar and one cream.

When he was done in the kitchen Aug. 6, Paul said, Mullins needed her help bleeding the brakes on an old blue Dodge. It’s a two-person job; he showed her how to pump the pedal while releasing air bubbles from the line. Later that day, Paul said, she made a trip to Wasilla. When she got back, the front yard was cordoned off with yellow police tape. Neighbors and camera crews gathered in the street. Alma sat outside in her pajamas, distraught, as police officers milled around nearby and filed in and out of the house.

Ron died at the hospital that evening. Nayokpuk, 38, was charged with first and second-degree murder after admitting to stabbing his uncle with a kitchen knife.

Ralph’s arrest, arraignment and indictment made the news. Ron, a man known for his kind and generous heart, was quietly laid to rest surrounded by family and friends under blue skies nearly two weeks later.

Away from the headlines and out of the spotlight, his death left a painful void in a family with deep Alaskan ties. But his life left behind happy memories with the people who loved him.

Alisha Mullins calls him her closest uncle. Shy at first, he talked fast and finished your sentences once he got to know you, she said. He loved cars and fishing and rock and roll, and his niece remembers childhood summers spent casting flies on the Russian River and dipnetting on the Chitina. Once, after a trip to the Russian, Ron used an old shoelace and fishing line to fix a broken throttle cable on the truck — at least until the family made it back to Anchorage.

On another occasion, he hoisted Alisha onto his shoulders to watch Joan Jett perform at the Alaska State Fair. Alisha still remembers Jett belting out “I Love Rock and Roll” at the Borealis Theatre. Ron loved rock, too; Jett and Ted Nugent and Led Zeppelin. Alisha can’t listen to “Stairway to Heaven” without thinking about her uncle.

On Aug. 6., Alisha said she was listening to the Anchorage Police Department’s online scanner feed sometime around 9:30 p.m. when she heard her grandmother’s N. Park Street address. For a second, she said, she thought there was a mistake. Then she heard the word “uncle” through the radio chatter. She heard talk of a stabbing. She said she wasn’t surprised when she learned about Nayokpuk’s arrest because he’d threatened her uncle before.

According to police, Nayokpuk was intoxicated when he got home that night. Court documents say he and Ron argued and the older man said he would call the police. Nayokpuk, who was cutting up vegetables, allegedly grabbed the knife and stabbed Ron repeatedly.

“I did not think I hurt him that bad, but evidently I did,” Ralph told police when they arrived, according to court documents.

Alisha tried calling her grandparents’ house but the phone was disconnected. She called family members to tell them what she heard, because she didn’t want them to find out on the 10 o’clock news first. Then they got word Ron didn’t make it.

“You never think something like that can happen to your family,” Alisha said.

She comes from a big family; one that’s been in Alaska for generations.

Her grandfather, Kit Mullins, was a decorated World War II veteran who traveled to Alaska more than 50 years ago to work for the Federal Aviation Administration, installing communications antenna in rural communities across the state. Kit married Alma, a native of Western Alaska whose brother Herbie Nayokpuk was one of the original mushers of the Iditarod Trail. Nayokpuk was known as “The Shishmaref Cannonball” and went on to compete in the Last Great Race 10 more times after that first run. When he passed away in 2006, his memorial was broadcast in communities across Alaska.

Kit and Alma raised half a dozen children together, including Ron, who was born in Nome the year before his parents built their Mountain View home. Then Alma adopted her grandson, Ralph Nayokpuk, when he was just a baby.

As the decades passed, the clan expanded. Kit and Alma grew older and refused to go into a nursing home, and Alisha said her uncle devoted himself to caring for his parents. In 2011, Kit passed away at home, surrounded by family at the age of 90.

After that, Ron was his mother’s main caretaker. He brought Alma to church and medical appointments and cooked her favorite meals. Ralph still lived in the house, too. Alisha said she didn’t like that – she didn’t think her uncle Ron was safe in the home with his adopted step-brother.

Over the years, Ralph had more than a few run-ins with the law. In 1998, he pled no contest to a count of first-degree burglary, amended from an original charge of second-degree murder. About five years later, he was convicted of second-degree sexual abuse of a minor. Alisha thought he got off too easy.

“He’s been let out of jail every time,” she said.

Alisha said she saw that as a failure of Alaska’s criminal justice system.

Alma always welcomed Nayokpuk back into the green house on N. Park Street. Ron stayed to watch over his mother.

For a while, Ron’s longtime girlfriend, Nita Johnson, lived in the home with them and helped care for Alma. When Johnson suddenly caught pneumonia and died in March, her niece Lana Paul moved into the home to take her place helping care for the Mullins family matriarch. Paul said her aunt’s death hit Ron hard, and he worried over his mother’s own fragile health.

They would take Alma to her appointments together, Paul said, then go out hunting for garage sales before heading “back to the Ponderosa,” as Ron used to say.

He’d call the Mountain View house a junkyard with affection, Paul said. It’s painted lime green with an eye-catching emerald trim. Besides the blue Dodge in the yard, there are two more pickups, an old white van and a battered RV parked in front of the house. A tent was pitched next to the door and a worn blue couch sat in the grass nearby. Fireweed grows around the trucks’ bumpers.

Paul said Ron spent hours in the yard this summer. She remembers his broad smile, and the way he would begin a project or story then wander off to check on his mother. He had a funny habit of storing beers here and there around the property, and Paul said she’d clean the house and find Pabst Blue Ribbon in unusual places. When he cooked, he often left behind a mess in the kitchen and Paul said she’d grown used to cleaning up after him. But when he cooked, she said, it was usually for his mother.

“He had a big heart,” she said.

Hacienda, the little Mexican restaurant in a strip mall on Debarr, was one of his favorite places to eat out. Alisha remembers all the times her uncle took her there — Ron loved chips and salsa and enchiladas and went to Hacienda so often the waitresses recognized him.

After Ron died, most of the family members met up to eat there. Alisha said she’s been back a few times since. She said she thinks of the time she spent at the restaurant with her uncle and feels lucky to have those memories.

She has other memories; like the time Ron brought her and her sister and his own daughter to the old Kmart by the Northway Mall, where they begged to ride the bumper boats. Alisha said her uncle couldn’t say no, even though the ride would leave them soaking wet for the trip home. He always wanted everyone to have a good time, she said.

And he had a passion for classic cars, especially those built by Chrysler.

Alisha said he had studied at AVTEC in Seward, specialized in transmission work and became a mechanic. The trucks that crowded the yard of his Mountain View home were his hobby, and he’d often do repairs for people who brought their own vehicles by the house.

Ron was the one who taught her how to change the oil in her car, Alisha said. When she had mechanical problems, she said, he could usually diagnose the issue over the phone – or at least tell her whether her car was safe to drive. He was always safety conscious.

The Plymouth Roadrunner was one of his favorite cars.

When the family laid Ron to rest in an Anchorage cemetery in mid-August, his niece said a procession of cars turned out for his service. There were a couple Chargers, a Challenger, a Dodge Coronet and, of course, a Roadrunner.

“It just made me smile, seeing that Roadrunner follow him,” Alisha said.

There was sunshine in the cemetery when they laid him to rest, and dozens of red roses on his coffin. Alisha’s voice broke when she described the angel shape formed by drifting clouds over her uncle’s grave. That day, she said, family and friends took turns sharing their favorite stories about her uncle – his sense of humor and the way he’d be there for the people who needed him.

“He would always be there to help people laugh,” Alisha said. “He can’t be replaced.”

When Ron died, everything changed.

There was a problem with the boiler in the old family home and Paul said neither she nor Alma knew how to reprogram and restart it. Ron had always taken care of that. Paul said she took over breakfast duty. The hotcakes aren’t the same.

Alma still wakes up in the morning and expects her son to be there, Paul said. That’s the worst loss.

The trucks that crowd the front of the N. Park Street home will most likely be sold now, Alisha said. There’s nobody left to coax them into operation, and for weeks afterward the old blue Dodge sat right where it did on the morning of Aug. 6. Without her son – her longtime caretaker – Alma is considering moving back to her hometown of Shishmaref, leaving her husband and son buried in Anchorage. But that move won’t be easy, because Alma requires experienced medical care that Paul said is hard to find, especially on a remote island in northwest Alaska.

The green house in Mountain View, home to generations of Alaskans, will never be the same.

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