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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Mars, Pa., is surprisingly down to earth

NASA engineers are right now engaged in painstaking calculations over how much it’ll take to one day send astronauts to Mars.

Estimated price tag: $11 billion.

Maybe someone should seek directions from the woman the Martians all call “Cookie.”

“Yeah, just head north from Pittsburgh up the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the Cranberry exit,” she says. “Then make a right onto 228 east. The turnpike’s a toll road so have some change handy.”

Total cost: $2.90.

“Anything else?”

Yes, will you take me to your leader?

“That would be Dick Settlemire. He’s mayor,” says Cookie, the Martian borough secretary who’s also known as Etha Wolfe.

The man most Martian townsfolk refer to as “Mayor Dick” is a two-legged cheerful chain smoker whose very appearance goes a long way toward smashing stereotypes people have of little green men from the red planet.

“I get a lot of funny looks when I tell people I’m the mayor of Mars,” says Settlemire, a ruddy-skinned, softly bearded grandfather. He’s for 10 years been mayor of the tiny hamlet about 40 miles north of Pittsburgh.

Mars, pop. 1,745, embraces its quirky name with an out-of-this-world gusto.

Spaceships and little green men adorn official borough stationary, the high school football team is the Fighting Planets and a vintage sci-fi flying saucer is the centerpiece of the pleasant town green where other civic-minded municipalities put things like statues, fountains and decommissioned military hardware.

“Not a weekend goes by when I don’t see at least a few people out by the spaceship getting their pictures taken,” says Settlemire, 55. “As mayor I’ve been asked to officiate at 176 weddings and a good many of them have been out in front of the space ship. People are drawn to it.”

The most surprising thing about the only Martians most of us will ever glimpse is just how, well, down to Earth they are.

They’re not what you expect. They’re not little, they’re not green and the only aspect of world domination that they seem bent upon inflicting upon Earthlings involves The Pittsburgh Steelers.

“Oh, yeah, Mars is Steeler country,” Settlemire says, affirming what a snazzy Steeler leather plainly makes clear. “We’re crazy for the Steelers.”

The ancients named Mars, the planet, after the Roman god of war because of its crimson hue.

Mars, the borough, according to one theory, was named after Samuel Marshall, who helped establish a post office near a thriving gristmill that belonged to pivotal founder Samuel Parks along the banks of Breakneck Creek.

Some say Mars was a friendly shorthand of Marshall (there’s also a Marshall Street in Mars). Others say the name was an odd romantic gesture to Mrs. Parks, who was said to have enjoyed astronomy.

Either way, Mars being Mars has helped it stand out on earth maps, as has its iconic little spaceship, a featured attraction on www.roadsideamerica.com for motorists who enjoy eccentric travel.

Settlemire says a local resident constructed the craft out of two oil tanks about 20 years ago and wisely included hefty features that make it resistant to vandal-minded thieves.

“It weighs 2,800 pounds,” he said.

So is there life on Mars?

The question momentarily stumps resident Linda Lascher.

“Well, we do have a bowling alley,” she says. “Mars is a great place to raise your kids, but there’s not all that much to do here.”

To be fair, it’s not her job to get people to visit Mars. She and her husband Jim own Mars Travel and are dedicated to getting people to go away from Mars.

“Our motto is, ‘From Mars to Moon to the World,’” she says.

It’s an inside joke grasped only by savvy western Pennsylvanians; the Pittsburgh airport is located in Moon Township.

People who are interested in catching glimpses of Mars -- stars included! -- need not peek in the Hubble telescope, either.

Parts of the 1968 horror classic, “Night of the Living Dead,” were filmed here and residents still talk about the starring role Mars played in filming the 1996 movie, “Kingpin,” which aficionados regard as the finest bowling movie ever made that isn’t “The Big Lebowski.”

The slapstick “Kingpin” starred Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid and Bill Murray and was one of the late Gene Siskel’s top 10 movies the year of its release.

“That was a lot of fun for the town,” Settlemire says. “Woody was great. He rode bikes with my kids. Everybody loved him. He’ll always have a lot of friends in Mars.”

One thing he won’t have, however, is an opportunity to sip a cold beer.

Yes, Mars is BYOB.

Much to Settlemire’s chagrin, the mayor can’t persuade a majority of his council to act on motions that would give voters a voice in converting the dry since Prohibition town to one that allows lawful consumption of alcoholic beverages.

“I’ve been approached by entrepreneurs who are eager to open a micro brewery right here in town,” he says. “I think it would be great for Mars.”

So where can sojourners weary from long intergalactic voyages go for adult refreshment? Jupiter? Saturn?

“Try Bobby’s Place,” Settlemire says. “That’s just across the border in Adams Township. It’s a friendly tavern and you can get a drink there.”

Someone better be sure to tell NASA. You’d hate to send astronauts all the way to Mars without someone remembering to pack a cooler.

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