Friday, September 05, 2008

Alaska Memories

Photo of caribou walking alongside the en:Tran...Image via Wikipedia More from Dr. Tundra, whom we may persuade to post with us regularly.

Since we’re still doing Alaska, and since my manly, self-confident critic, Anonymous, surely wants another shot, here’s a bit of Alaska at the time Sarah Palin was 16 years-old. Who knew she would win the Miss Wasilla Pageant four years later?

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“Son-of-a-bitch! Goddamn, motherfucking jackhammers!”

This is December 24, 1980 in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. I’m 36 years-old, 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 this morning 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.

Even though I’d been working out of the Fairbanks laborers union for six years, living in Alaska for 15 years, I had, until now, through meticulous attention to detail, managed to avoid jackhammer work. No escape today. Six out of the eight men on my crew have left on Christmas R & R. I volunteered to stay because I hate being around people during holidays, a gift from my parents and siblings. Also, by staying I would collect two double-time pay days in one week. But, the real enticement, the real bonus, was the certainty that the job site would calm down, no one would try to get any work done, the prospect of hiding out, sleeping in warm-up shacks, reading all day, was guaranteed.

But, 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 goddamn emergency. Had to find this big electric trunk line, which was thought to be buried underneath one of the 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. Frank moved up from a small town in southern Indiana to work the pipeline, liked the money, and, after awhile, liked Alaska. He bought a two bedroom house in south Fairbanks, settled in as professional laborer and union man, happily collecting his $60,000 to $80,000-a-year. Frank’s 32, 5 foot 10 with a stringy build and receding hairline. Said receding hairline is magnified by a long black ponytail tied back tight. He has an angular face that resemblances, nay, duplicates, Gunsmoke top hand and Marshall Matt Dillon sidekick, Festus Haggen. Frank’s speech is laced with a thick hillbilly whine. Here’s a quote from the real Festus (played by Ken Curtis), “The onliest thing you get from straddlin’ the fence is a sore backside.” That’s, exactly, how Frank sounds.

Frank is smart, uneducated, funny and, normally impossible to come across in Prudhoe Bay, has a big, open heart. This is the guy you’d want your sister to marry. Six years from now, sitting at his kitchen table in south Fairbanks, Frank will choke to death on a piece of Safeway bought flank steak.

That was yet to come. Right now, Frank and me dress (sweaters, parka, wool gloves, arctic gloves, arctic pants, wool caps), schlep outside to the yard. I trust it’s the yard although I can’t actually see it due to the combination of deep space darkness and blowing snow. I lean hard into the wind, walk along the side of the parts warehouse, confident that I would not run into a goddamn electrician or pipefitter, not to mention a worthless Teamster - root around snow banks, find a generator, jackhammer, air compressor, space heater and plenty of visquine in order to slap together a lean-to, so space heater will make with the warm, so men and machines can function. We hook up the air compressor to the trailer hitch, the rest in the truck bed. I 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 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.” All you have to do is outrage one of them - and they are sensitive, delicate creatures - and this sweet $1,800-a- week gig is history.

Frank’s voice sounds over the jackhammer, “Hey, mellow down, it’s Christmas.”

“Fuck Christmas.”

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In a Festus whine: "Why, this man's nearly as mean 'n' angry as a professor puttin' a ax to the Western canon."