Sunday, December 26, 2004

Why We are in Baghdad: A Christmas Memory

That is NOT the headline under which this piece ran in the San Diego Reader, and I'm not even sure what I mean by it. Yeah, I do. It means the war is/was/will be about oil. Anyway, my friend Pat Daugherty, the writer of this piece, called it to my attention. It's a little mise en scene, you know, a nice blue-collar moment in a world where even now something like this is always happening. Except now like as not there's no union, and the only guaranteed benefit is preferred seating on the next ice floe out. (It's called senilicide.) -- DC

"Son-of-a-bitch! Son-of-a-bitchin' jackhammers!"

This is December 24, 1980 in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. I'm working off a class B hangover and getting my ass kicked by an 80-pound jackhammer. Self, hangover and jackhammer are struggling at the base of GC-1, a BP Alaska gathering center, one of nine that separate oil from gas and water in preparation for pumping, every day, two million gallons of black muck 798 miles down the Trans Alaskan Pipeline to the Port of Valdez.

The sun has not been seen in these parts for 34 days. Thirty-three more days will pass before it rises again. The temperature is -32 degrees, not inhumanely cold, it rarely gets under 40 below in Prudhoe Bay, but a west wind is pumping at 25, 30 mph which makes the wind chill -75 degrees. At that temperature the world implodes and there is existence without any light or heat or god whatsoever.

This morning, my foreman, a 60-year-old alcoholic by the name of Rod Vernon, walked into the warm-up shack, face flushed, adrenalin pumping -- the superintendent must have been on his ass -- talking about some emergency. Had to find this big electric trunk line, which was thought to be buried underneath one of four pillars holding up the south end of the GC-1. "You men grab some gear and get on over there. Stay with it until it's done."

The "men" asshole is referring to is Frank Huber and me. We dress (sweaters, wool gloves, arctic gloves, arctic pants, wool cap, bunny boots, parka), and schlep outside to the yard. I trust it's the yard although I can't see it due to the combination of deep space darkness and blowing snow. We lean hard into the wind, walk along the side of the parts warehouse, root around snow banks, find a generator, jackhammer, air compressor, space heater and plenty of visquine. I hook up air compressor to the trailer hitch and drive the Chevy crew cab through a near whiteout to GC-1 on A MISSION.

One wishes, always, to avoid working A MISSION. When you are on A MISSION every lard-ass boss who can command a pickup truck waddles his fat butt out to its warm front seat and drives over to look at "The Job."]

Frank's voice sounds over the jackhammer, "Hey, mellow down, it's Christmas."

"Fuck Christmas."

Now comes Rod Vernon, wearing cowboy boots and a light winter puff blue jacket. Vernon whines, "Okay, shut her down, they figured another way, they don't need it," and then the puke actually hops back to his toasty-warm pickup truck. Six months from now, I'll steal that truck and purposefully drive it into the main channel of the Kaparuk River.

The compressor wheezes to a stop. Ice, entwined and hanging from my beard, is a half-inch thick and two inches long. I grunt.

Frank grunts back, "What did you say?"

"Never mind. Did you get the beer chilled?"

Even though Prudhoe Bay is leased state land, leased primarily by BP and ARCO, who ban drugs, booze, unmarried couples sharing rooms, there was, during the course of any given year, one to eight thousand construction workers in residence, which meant there were plenty of drugs and booze and a lamentable lack of sex. Alcohol came up by the ton as private baggage in the cargo bays of Wein Air Alaska and Alaska Airlines.

Home is CC-2 (Construction Camp 2), one of four BP owned residential camps built on the west side of Prudhoe Bay. Camps are modular, slapped-together units with two-man rooms. CC-2 houses 500 men, maybe 20 women.

Routine is: ride the yellow work bus home from the Sohio yard, slog to my room, pour a double shot of Jim Beam, crank on the tape deck, crank it louder, pop a beer, look at the wall. Retrieve sandals and bathrobe from the standing closet, walk down the hallway to the bathroom, shower, smoke a cigarette while in the shower, retrace steps to room, sit on bed, look at the wall.

Soon, too soon, there's a tap on my door and one, two, three men enter. Each man pulls a beer from the room's one civilian artifact, an enormous, 200 quart ice chest. Job talk commences. This was a pastime I discouraged but could never squelch.

On this 1980 Christmas eve I was tired due to the ugly experience of jackhammer, so this was going to be an early night. After a couple hours of whiskey and beer, two guests drift off to the dining hall. I look over, realize Frank is drunk, which is unusual. I call out, "Hey, big guy. Take it home. We must be about our duties on the first tide."

Frank struggles to his feet, lurches towards the door, wheels around, fishes another beer from the cooler, leaves.

I pour the last shot of Beam, strip naked, sit on the edge of the bed, light a Winston, look at the wall. Christmas Eve. Not a bad place to spend it.

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