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Tucson Salvage 

A mummy night light, healing crystals, and the DNA of desert legends

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The frail skeleton of a vampire bat hangs upside down inside a small glass display case. It's prickly and lurid, and almost pretty. Hector Espinoza and his four preteen sons peruse the lighted cases, crammed with bizarre curios, dead things and minerals. Their half-cautious, half-giddy wonderment fills the dusty quiet with little-kid light and energy. 

One boy pauses at the bat, jams his finger at it. "Oh, look at that ... at that!"

The others hastily gather and gawk and wince.

"It that a bat?"

"Sick!"

"No way."

Dad, in his white Metallica tee and shades, could be creeped out too, but he doesn't show it. Not here in front of his kids. Instead he grins, and his brood calms. Just like that.

Shop proprietor Ron Ratkevich observes from behind the checkout counter, his graying eyebrows lift. "Some kids who come in," he says, "still want to be paleontologists."

But the fear part is easy, even if it's about expanding the world of imagination for kids.

click to enlarge Vultures. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Vultures.

I used to pedal my racing bike past this same shop when I was a teenager. It'd spark in my gut like billboards for The Thing would from the backseat of our family VW van, as we rolled down I-10, heading on a cross-country drive with my siblings and pop. I'd imagine some grizzled barker inside this place, showing the old Sonoran Desert—its florae and fauna, angry vinegaroons and alien rock sculptures. Spinning yarns of the Mexican ghosts of the old Altar mine, and La Llorona and all those drowned children in the Santa Cruz River. He'd share Native American fables and mourn all the River Yumans, Yavapais and Apaches murdered by Euro-Americans.

The mind would reel as a kid on a bike: All these things must live and breathe in the minerals and rocks and bones, from the borderlands, from the bloody slag heaps of copper mines. The deaths, the lives, the joys and the history of the hatreds, and the haunts.

In small ways, The Tucson Mineral & Gem World really is like that. There's likely no place on earth where it could exist except in the desert outskirts of Tucson, Arizona.

It's too familiar to the Sonoran Desert, especially if you grew up here—a sun-bleached wooden façade, rocks and nostalgia, in forests of Palo Verde and ocotillo. Could be a saloon from the Old Tucson set. (Well, it was once gussied up for the '84 Kris Kristofferson flick Flashpoint, a story that involved a jeep found in the desert filled with cash and a link to the JFK assignation. Even that movie plot point fits.)

click to enlarge Various minerals and rocks. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Various minerals and rocks.

It's part museum, part relic, surrounded by piles of rocks and geodes and petrified wood, out on Kinney Road between Old Tucson and Ajo Way, an area no yet ruined by chicken-wire-and-spit development. The interior features the usual and unusual medley of gem, mineral and fossil ephemera, thousands of pieces—spangled geodes and strange aquatic formations. Oyster fossils, dinosaur teeth, mammoth skin, ancient bronze and carved figures from Egypt and the world. Fossil limestones from North Africa and beyond, and minerals and rocks and precious stones from every Arizona mine and town you've ever heard of. Giant trilobite fossils, raptor limbs, and all manner of animal and human skulls, it goes on.

It's too haphazard, too untidy and irrational to be museum or university curated. The accumulations here and the actions that led to those accumulations, are the same. It starts with fascination, and then collecting, and then storytelling.

It's also about how 69-year-old Ron, who's a paleontologist, intuits truth. "When I'm sitting on an archaeological site, I can hear the kids playing, smell the food cooking, hear the drums," he says. "You can envision the village of life. You can interpolate the life. You can put the story together with so few pieces to the story."

                                                                  * * * *

click to enlarge A vampire bat skeleton. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • A vampire bat skeleton.

"I watch TV next to a pharaoh," Ron says. "He was killed 4,500 years ago. I made him into a night light." The mummy's from the New Kingdom of Egypt, he tells me, an actual Pharaoh.

Ron could be the roadside crank. But his inner-kid harbors mad fascinations for dinosaur bones, Arizona minerals, desert landscapes, Egyptian mummies, Native American folklore and even antiquated phallic apparatuses. In some cultures, he points out, the image of a penis is revered. No shame here.

Kristofferson could play him; sweetness opposes a surly exterior. Round specs, some girth and posture formed from years of fossil digging and squinting hunched over at minerals and the like. He's the kind of guy who would build an archeological site on his own property, which he is doing, by the way.

We're inside Ron's home, which he shares with his second wife, Sherry, who works for the Keefe Group, selling concessions in prisons. His son lives nearby, works in law enforcement. His brother Richard's close by too. He's two years Ron's senior, and co-owns the shop.

Shelly's frank and funny and finishes his sentences.

"She's as nutty as I am," he says.

Shelly laughs, "I picked up a dead horned toad and brought him home.” She nods to Ron, and adds, “and he was so happy. He gave me Tourmaline crystals for Christmas."

Ron gives a little approving shrug.

click to enlarge Ron Ratkevich’s home collection of ancient skulls. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Ron Ratkevich’s home collection of ancient skulls.


"I learned just about everything about rocks from you," she adds. (When I leave later Shelly hands me a parting gift—a petrified turd.)

The mummy's perched against a wall in the living room. It's death-faced, decrepit in a half-open wooden sarcophagus, complete with hieroglyphics. Never saw a pharaoh mummy before, except in photos—it's at once frightening and fascinating.

click to enlarge Ron Ratkevich and the living-room Pharaoh. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Ron Ratkevich and the living-room Pharaoh.

I ask Ron if the mummy is real.

"Of course, he's real," he says.

It's provenance?

"I inherited him from an Egyptologist I'd first met when I was a teenager. His wife called after he'd passed away. My brother and I packed him up in our Rambler station wagon and here he is. He taught us how to read hieroglyphics, but I don't remember much anymore ..."

There's a baby mummy in another room, in an antiquated stroller. I ask if that one's real.

He nods. "Yep."

What's real, what's fake is hardly the point. Like reading stories as a kid about explorers searching for Mayan gold that didn't exist. That whole idea of God, gold and glory from the age of explorers was a lie, if you think about it. This is more about believing, the searching, the discovering. So much inner-kid. So much undying curiosity.

There's all manner of decaying archeological vestiges of family life and natural history in his house. Like a kid's kingdom; 500-year-old pirate pistols and Revolutionary War muskets, framed strands of George Washington's hair, and a collection of penises of marble and wood. Stuffed brown leather chairs and creepy taxidermy, a hand-carved Anubis, and a human skeleton in a ball cap.

There's a shadow-boxed shoe belonging to a soldier worn, he says, in the 1862 Battle of Shiloh.

The place is disheveled but organized, each object prejudiced with personal attachment. And dusty, very Tucson dusty, the dust of a person who's living in, whose entire career was born out of, bones and minerals and stories of the past. Even smells of dust and bones and DNA.

Could see him puff up when he talks minerals, his life—hardly one meant for a specimen jar you could screw a lid on—with the fossils.

click to enlarge Mummy face. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Mummy face.

His pop, Peter Ratkevich, for years a supervising film editor for the renowned Louis de Rochemont film studios in New York City, is best known for his work on the trailblazing 1958 "cinemircle" sea-epic Windjammer. He moved to Tucson in the late '60s and made short corporate promo reels, educational docs and films for Kitt Peak National Observatory. Ranker.com lists the elder Ratkevich as the 18th most famous person to die in Tucson, behind Lee Marvin, gangster Joe Bonanno, sexual researcher William Masters, and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger.

Dad Ratkevich built the front half of this shop by hand. It was meant to be left to his sons so they'd have a quiet life of minerals and fossils and desert sunsets. Dad was thoughtful and generous that way, Ron says. He died in 2003.

New York City-born, Ron and his brother Richard (and Dad) got into fossils after meeting a guy on Long Island who had a pocketful of arrowheads. That did it.

Ron and Rich began working at the American Museum of Natural history as teenagers. They cleaned fossils, and soon began taking part in expeditions, digging everything from "Dinosaurs to Cenozoic Mammals."

Soon, the brothers had constructed a fossil whale inside the basement of his parent's Long Island home. When his parents sold the house, they were forced to leave the 60-million-year-old thing behind, in the basement. It was too big to move. The boys' hearts were broken.

What did the new owners of the house think of the basement whale?

"No idea," Ron says.

He attended Columbia University. And then the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, and also the University of New Mexico, where he became an archaeologist.

click to enlarge Ron Ratkevich’s home collection of phallic sculptures. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Ron Ratkevich’s home collection of phallic sculptures.

He's authored or contributed to books on fossils and collecting, "mostly for the amateur and dilettante," including An Illustrated Guide to Fossil Collecting and Ice Age Mammals of the San Pedro River Valley, Southeastern Arizona.

In the 1990s, Ron was staff paleontologist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. He had a big hand in unearthing a geology student's discovery of a brachiosaurid, a dinosaur that lived 100 million years ago or so. The fossil discovery was significant. Ron christened the Arizona treasure "Sonorasaurus thompsoni." The creature, which measured around 49 feet long and 27 feet high, and probably weighed in at 27 tons, was discovered near Sonoita, 40 miles east of Tucson.

In a 1995 Los Angeles Times piece on the fossil discovery, Ron was quoted saying, "I've died and gone to heaven—dinosaur heaven. How many people can do what they've dreamed of doing since they were a young kid? Here I am, a middle-aged little kid, digging up a dinosaur."

Now he sells to collectors. They've a couple small warehouses full of things ("My dad used to just buy stuff up.") He buys at the Tucson gem and mineral show, but doesn't display there ("we have a shop for that").

But, he adds, it's the healing crystal folks who've been big buyers in recent years.

Ever wonder if black tourmaline can protect and eliminate negative energy? Or if chrysoprase can help you handle bitter truths? Or if red jasper can help exorcise your sexual demons for hang-up-free sex?

"Look," he says, "you have to believe in something for it to work. Let's say you have a bad liver ..." He touches a lovely amethyst stone alternating between purple and lavender in the light. Holds it up liver level.

click to enlarge A blowfish. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • A blowfish.

"There's harmonics around it—the movement of the particles around the electrons," he allows. "We're using it right now, using our larynx to articulate a message from our brain. Once we had language we could share ideas, oral histories. We could tell somebody how to make a spear ... so the crystals are communicating to us by their harmonic vibrations; they're talking to us. I don't want to sound like some foo-fa guy—but there's electrical substructures in these things causing vibrations. It's not like the hand of God is coming through this—you have to believe. It's like a placebo effect, but there's valance, gravity and different weights of the particles."

He continues: "Here's your liver, say it's diseased. The valence is wrong, the harmonics are wrong. This whole thing"—he shifts the amethyst in his hand—"Think of this perfection floating around the stone—like a perfect clock beyond what a Swiss manufacturer could make, moving very perfectly in its own universe. It's got the perfect vibration, and those elements are moving around your liver; so it's connecting and resetting your clock, in a way." He pauses. Adds, "That's the only way I can think of something happening, at least how a physicist would look at it. But I'm a paleontologist—it's the evolution of you, not of minerals.

"Glass isn't evolving," he continues. "It'll stay in the ground without changing. What's evolving is us, and our knowledge of what to do with glass. We know now what to do with crystals, if you believe in it. People buy a lot of pendulums from us. If you believe it might solve some problems, spiritually or otherwise, it's for you."

click to enlarge A baby mummy in Ratkevich's house. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • A baby mummy in Ratkevich's house.

                                                          * * * *

Back in the shop, the boys continue to observe and touch objects with hesitation. Ron and Shelly zero in on the family, and then Ron turns, and says, with no whiff of PR spin, "All we want to do is make people happy and educate them."

Ron asks Espinoza how he and his sons heard of the shop.

Espinoza says, "From Coyote Peterson's Brave Wilderness" show on YouTube. (That episode, which has more than two-million views, finds Peterson, alongside wildlife biologist and photographer Mario Aldecoa, scouring the Tucson Mineral & Gem World for bizarre give-a-ways to viewers.) The show, in which "amazing" is adjective of choice, was a boon to the shop.

Then Espinoza and his four sons, the youngest of whom is but three years old, line up for a picture. He's confused in the scene, wide-eyed and frightened, but safe in his father's hands. It's the human skull his brothers are holding that's turning his own head inside out, pulling him in and out of the realm of the living and the dead, of truth and fiction.

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