An Interview with Philip Mercer

This interview was reprinted by permission of The District Magazine as part of their regular “Outside the Beltway” series, a look at residents of our nation’s capital not drawing a government check. It appeared in the July 2006 issue.

Not So Minor Accomplishments

Consulting geologist and mining engineer, Philip Mercer

By Katie Ross

In the three years I’ve been writing this column my editor has sent me out to meet some interesting people, some not so interesting people and some who were downright dull. When she assigned me to interview a doctor of geology who consults with mining companies I was less than pleased. I imagined a conversation including lines like “Well I believe igneous inclusions are fascinating because blah blah blah” or “Did you know that forty percent of the worlds kryptonite ore comes from the North Dakota Badlands.”

I complained bitterly. One of the world’s greatest polo players, who happens to be the gorgeous son of a South American manufacturing baron, had just bought an estate in Chevy Chase. Couldn’t I interview him, I begged.

“He’s got an exclusive with Vanity Fair. Go talk to the rock jock.

More like stone dome, I thought but packed my pad and pen in my Coach and headed out to the address she’d set the meeting up for.

The street was lined with nondescript Brownstones in Arlington that had been carved into smaller and smaller apartments by generations of greedy landlords trying to maximize their investments until the whole block gets razed for an office park. The address was a bar called Tiny’s at the end of the block, part of an encroaching strip mall that acted as a buffer to a cluster of high rises.

I could tell from the grimy facade that the bar’s house white came from a box and I’d be taking my life in my own hands if I ordered a Cosmo. Sparkling water for this girl and only if the bartender opened the bottle in front of me.

The inside of the joint — yes joint, as soon as I walked in I downgraded it from ‘bar’ to ‘joint’ — smelled like a California mountain top after a forest fire. The walls, windows, and the half dozen rumpled patrons were yellowed with nicotine. The floor was stickier than flypaper so my hunch to change my Prada’s for Payless in the car was a right one.

The bartender looked like a garden gnome and looked at me like I was nuts for being there. I wasn’t going to argue. What I thought was a moth-eaten golf bag lying next to the bar turned out to be a mangy basset hound. My editor was going to die when I got back to the magazine.

“I’m looking for Philip Mercer,” I said slowly, as if to someone I wasn’t sure spoke English.

The most rumpled rummy hunched over the bar looked up from the cigarette smoldering in the ashtray in front of him and growled. “I’m Mercer. You must be that reporter woman.”

That’s it. I’m out of here. This was either the biggest mistake or the worst practical joke in history.

“Knock it off, Harry.” The bartender’s high voice made me think of jockies I’d seen interviewed and the name of the bar and the horse racing pictures hang haphazardly on the walls confirmed his former occupation. “Sorry ma’am. Mercer just called. He got held up but should be here in a minute. What can I get for you?”

The sound of a sports car distracted everyone in the room as a candy apple red, low-slung, absolutely sexy car pulled into the loading zone spot in front of the bar.

“Oh, my god, please,” was all I could think.

The window frame cut off my view of his head as he got out of the car wearing an Armani sports coat and jeans worn the way jeans were meant to be worn so my first impression was his walk. It was Jeff Goldblum striding across the desert at the end of Independence Day without the gangliness or the Tom Cruise strut in Top Gun without the arrogance.

Rock Jock indeed.

It wouldn’t matter what his face looked like. It never does for men who move with such assured confidence. But when he came through the door and his grey eyes lit up when he saw me sitting slack-jawed at the bar I knew I owed my editor a dozen roses and a box of Godiva.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said and jerked a thumb over his shoulder at his car. “That thing attracts cops even when I’m not speeding.”

“It’s beautiful. What is it?”

“Maserati Gran Sport. I just got it. Tiny, a gimlet and . . .?” He cocked an eyebrow.

Maybe it was the car or maybe this was the day to reconsider all my preconceived notions but I went for the Cosmo. It rivaled the best I’d had at LeftBank.

Mercer and I (he uses his doctoral title to get better tables when he makes dinner reservations and no one ever uses his first name) quickly came to the understanding that neither of us had the foggiest idea why he’d been chosen for this interview but we had to get through it so I asked what, exactly, he did.

He answered my question with one of his own.

“What do you know about the stuff we use in our everyday lives?”

Having no idea what he was asking I just stared at him. It was easy with eyes like his.

“Everything we use is either grown or mined. I have nothing to do with textiles, agriculture, or lumbering but the rest of the stuff depends on what I do, be it the half carat emerald earrings you’re wearing, the coal and oil that drive the energy sector, the raw materials for manufacturing, or the quarrying of stone to build the cities around us.”

I had never thought about the world in that way and actually had him repeat his statement so I could get it down word for word.

Mercer is a combination of the two stereotypes I’d had in my mind — that of the over-educated geology professor and the dirt-under-the-nails, coal-dust faced miner. Part white collar, part blue collar with boths strength and neithers prejudices.

Between an undergrad degree and his PhD from Penn State Mercer spent two years at the Colorado school of mines. His father had been a prospecting geologist who was killed along with his mother in an African uprising before Mercer was a teenager. He was raised by his grandparents in Barre, Vermont where his grandfather had retired from the marble quarries there.

“I didn’t go into the field to honor my father. I did it because it is all I ever wanted to do.”

Judging by the car I’d say he made the right call.

Primarily he travels the world to consult with mining companies about potential strikes. He’s worked on every continent except Antarctica — not because there aren’t minerals there, he says, but because the United Nation forbids prospecting. He estimates that he’s been on projects that have discovered between seven and ten billion dollars worth of minerals — copper, iron ore, bauxite, which is where aluminum comes from, gold, opals, diamonds.

I asked him about oil but he told me that’s a whole different branch of geology and would be like asking a heart surgeon to do plastic surgery. The skills are there you just wont like the results.

I knew that mining was hazardous work and asked him if his life had ever been in danger.

“The moment you set one foot underground your life’s in danger. Every year a couple of construction workers are killed when ten foot deep foundation trenches cave in and bury them. Gold miners in South Africa work with tens of thousands of feet of rock hanging over their heads just waiting to heed gravity’s call and collapse. Then there is the danger of fire consuming every molecule of oxygen and either suffocating you, killing you with the smoke or burning you alive. Let’s not forget gas leaks, pockets of carbon monoxide that slowly put you in the Big Sleep or explosive methane that can ignite with nothing more than flick of a flashlight switch.”

“Why do it?” I asked.

He grinned. “Because there is nothing like the feeling of coming back out and knowing you just cheated all that.”

As we talked I got the sense that he wasn’t a daredevil cheating death. He felt a responsibility to make mining as safe as possible. He was a major part of the rescue operation in Sumerset County Pennsylvania in 2002 when nine trapped miners were rescued and was at the Sago Mine in West Virginia where twelve miners perished in January of this year. He said it wouldn’t matter if he’d saved nine hundred at Sumerset, it would never counterbalance the twelve he feels he failed in West Virginia.

I think the weight of rock that hangs over a typical miner is nothing compared to the weight of the world Mercer feels he has to shoulder.

I did persist and asked him what he thought was the most danger he’d ever faced.

It wasn’t the second vodka gimlet that opened him up. I was pretty sure he could drink any of the rummies at the bar under the table, but something did and for the next hour he told me stories that put Clancy or Cussler to shame.

Mercer was in Hawaii during the separatist crisis a couple of years ago and was captured in Alaska by the eco-terror group that tried to destroy the pipeline. He had to cross a minefield on foot in Africa before being sealed in a mine laced with deadly mercury and was on a plane forced to crash land in Greenland because of a bomb planted on board. He’d been on the Panama Canal when two ships rigged with explosives had tried to destroy it and he’d headed the project last year to stabilize a volcano in the Canary Islands that threatened to send a tidal wave to America a hundred times worse that the one that destroyed so much of Indonesia and Thailand.

I think we were both exhausted when he finished. I asked him what was the worst.

“Iraq,” he said without hesitation.

I know better than ask a man a question I might not want to hear the answer to but I asked anyway. “What happened in Iraq?”

“Its classified,” he said, “but I killed a man there. I killed my first man there, actually, but that wasn’t it. Killing him was the right thing to do but I did it because I was scared.”

“It was a war,” I told him, not understanding. “Killing the enemy is what you’re supposed to do and besides everyone is scared.

“This was before the war and the man I killed wasn’t an enemy soldier he was — I’m sorry I can’t tell you. All I can say is of everything I’ve ever faced in my life I carry an image out of Iraq that will never go away.”

I wish I hadn’t pushed him because I knew the interview was over. The grinding emotion I had just seen on his face was perhaps the most wrenching thing I had ever witnessed. We both gulped the last of our drinks in silence. Then the most extraordinary thing happened. Rather than wallow in his own feelings he was more concerned with how uncomfortable I was for dredging them up in the first place.

He said conspiratorially “Do you see that guy at the bar?” He pointed at he guy who first said he was Mercer. “If you want an interesting interview you might want to talk to him. Not only did he almost get me killed in a nuclear explosion in the Pacific, he was also kidnapped by Israeli secret agents, has lived under an assumed identity for fifty years and despite the fact he’s never been married actually gives good relationship advice.”

As far as I could tell he was a degenerate wino with a stinky dog but today was the day to heave my narrow-mindedness and remember that outside the beltway things are a lot more interesting than they seem.

Especially from the passenger seat of a Maserati on our way to Annapolis.