By Joseph Robertia
Beards. From those that are wiry, ungroomed and look like a bird’s nest, to the well-trimmed ones that seem to fit a face like a tailored suit, these chin accoutrements can say a lot about an individual and his personality.
But for some, the length of their beard is about more than a fashion or social statement, it’s a source of achievement, as it is for those one-upping other whiskered warriors during state, national and even international competitions, such as the Mr. Fur Face event held as part of Fur Rondy, or the World Beard and Moustache Championships last held in the U.S. in 2009.
Jerry Terp, of Kenai, is one of those competitors, sporting honey-colored facial fur that hangs to nearly his belt buckle. This winter he intends to return to competition after a hiatus of several years due to a series of unfortunate life and beard-related events.
“The last time I competed was back at the state fair in 2009,” he said. “I took first place in the ‘Colonist’ category.”
After coming home feeling — and looking — like ZZ Top after the win, it was within just a few months that Terp found himself on the ZZ Bottom, in terms of his beard and his luck.
“I woke up at 2:30 a.m., the middle of the night, and found the whole wall of my bedroom in flames,” he said.
Started — as deduced later by the fire department — from an improperly extinguished cigarette, the blaze in Terp’s home quickly spread. The heat grew horrendous, orange flames licked up the walls and the room was filled with thick smoke. Terp did his best to get everyone out of the house.
“I grabbed my girlfriend and tripped going out of the room. I got up and tried to go down the stairs, and it was all fire, but I was able to get down to the back door and get her out without being burned,” he said.
Terp went back in for their dog.
“I looked everywhere and went back upstairs, and that’s when I saw the thing I tripped over was the dog. He was dead already. I tried to get out of there at that point, but by then the back door was engulfed in flames, too,” he said.
The fire was spreading quickly and consuming everything in the home, and the house itself.
“At one point I looked up and there was 3 to 4 inches of flames just rolling overhead on the ceiling,” he said.
It was do or die, Terp said, so he did the only thing he could think of to survive and ran through the inferno. He got out alive, but not without injury.
“My head, face, arms, hands and the bottom of my feet were all burned. I spent a month in the burn ward (in Seattle) and had to get skin grafts,” he said.
His beard burned up, too, but at the time that seemed like the least of Terp’s problems.
“All my receipts, records, titles — I lost everything I owned and 16 years of my life in one night,” he said.
He spent the next few years trying to get everything back together, but times were tough, he said. He and his girlfriend went their separate ways and he even found himself homeless for quite a while.
“I was staying with friends wherever I could,” he said.
Terp returned to Alaska and got help through services at the Birchwood Center, a branch of Peninsula Community Health Services.
“They’ve really helped with my medical and stress problems. I still have nightmares about that night,” he said.
But as the memories of the fire have become less vivid, so have the physical reminders. Wounds have healed, better times are sprouting, and his beard has also begun to regrow.
“I started growing it back as soon as I could. It’s been four years and while it’s a little thinner in places, it’s back to my belly button again. I’m thankful for that,” he said.
He is ready to get back to beard and mustache contests, with his first competition scheduled to be Mr. Fur Face during the Alaska’s Miners and Trappers Ball during Fur Rondy in late winter.
“It’s a good event. There’s usually around 300 guys there competing,” he said.
As celebration and encouragement, his friends at the Birchwood Center threw him a BYOB (Bring Your Own Beard) party Friday, where men and women alike fashioned faux beards out of various materials to show their support for Terp.
“Some of them really got into it,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”
Certainly more fun than not having a beard. Escape from the chore of keeping his face unfurred is why he grew a beard in the first place.
“I hate shaving,” he said. “Always have.”