Tuesday, August 13, 2013



            My cousin Gary McDaniel is preparing for the last journey of his life. This time he is not getting his gear ready for fishing, or hunting. This time he is not cramming four adults into the cab of his truck so their physical closeness will comfort one another as they drive to his sister Dorothy’s funeral in Montana, all the way from Lake Stevens. This time he’s not packing his beloved grandchildren into the vehicle to take them to the McDaniel Family Reunion down by the Pilchuck River (though we’re hoping he’ll miraculously make it there on August 18th.) Oh, he is preparing for a family reunion all right, a celestial one where he will be reunited with the ones who have gone before. And of course, there will be a river of living water.

            I could talk on and on about how Gary is now a patriarch of our family. About how he built a retail empire and how all of his children now have a store that serves its neighborhood. Somehow we McDaniels seem to have Retail in our genes. I could tell you of Gary’s generosity to the community, and to individuals, but he wouldn’t be comfortable with me talking about that; he never wants anyone to know. But I have seen it, out of the corner of my eye, his gifts of money and of support and of helping people, related or not. I only know that when my own dear mother felt threatened, she said, “Don’t make me have to call Gary McDaniel.” My sister Sally and I knew that meant Gary would be there if she needed him. She knew it, we knew it. Luckily it never got to that point.

            But this little blog isn’t about how the pioneering McDaniels love God, and family, and getting together to share food and tell stories that bring laughter or tears to the listeners (and the best stories do both.) It is about how Gary McDaniel fell in love. With a cat.

            Cats were not a lifelong passion for Gary. “Who knew after all these years of living with me dragging home every stray, that only in the last few years he would become so attached to a cat!” his daughter Tami Bloor said. Gary had nearly 7 decades of life under his belt when he found an abandoned kitten on a fishing trip to Wapato. He named her Rose Wapato. She wrapped her paws around his heart:

            “A few years ago, she came in the house, full of pain, with a broken back. He didn’t bat an eye to pay out a lot of money to get her fixed up and put back together,” Tami said.

            Rose Wapato hung out with Gary as he worked in his yard, cutting and stacking wood, recreational therapy for him: it is how he regained his health and strength after open-heart surgery a few years ago. “I figured it would either kill me or cure me,” Gary said.

            But now Gary was in the hospital, marveling that he had been chopping wood only two weeks previous, “and now I can’t even support my own weight with my legs.” Dozens of visitors came, and Gary told story after story, shared inspiration and jokes and history as he held court from his hospital bed. Yet he missed Rose Wapato. He told Tami that his idea of a good time is petting his cat.

            “Actually, I talked to him about his cat when we visited! He said he used to hate cats….until this special one came into his life! I wish there were a way his cat could be brought to him….I think it would do wonders for his spirits!” Diane Carlson Williams wrote on Facebook.

            The idea tickled Gary, but everyone knew it was impossible. Even if the hospital would allow it, Rose Wapato was the wild card, the loose cannon: she was unused to cat carriers and riding in cars. Not fond of crowds. And would usually not let herself be petted for more than 15 minutes at a time. But Gary’s daughters Kris and Tami had to try it.

            Rose Wapato had been looking for Gary the whole time he is in the hospital. She went to “his usual haunts,” according to his daughter, “from woodpile #1 to woodpile #2 to woodpile #3.” Even though it was probably going to be a failed experiment, they had to bring her to Gary.

She wasn’t crazy about the carrier. Didn’t really enjoy the car ride. Found the hospital smells distasteful as she was carried up to the seventh floor. But then: she saw him. And the love fest resumed. Yes, he looked different than even the last time she had seen him. Much thinner. Now wearing a gauze bandage over a goose egg in the exact center of his forehead, a result of falling in the night. The bandage looked a little like a miner’s lamp, and she was used to seeing him in a baseball hat. Most unusual of all was that Gary wasn’t up and moving. He was flat on his back.

None of that mattered. She had found him! She crawled up on his bed and hunkered as close as she could get. Her paw found his hand. She stayed there, holding vigil, for three and a half hours, till it was time to go home. She came the next day and held vigil, again, holding paws with her beloved companion as visitors came and went.

            This isn’t the first story a pet’s supernatural intuition, and the inexplicable bond between the animal and the human, and it won’t be the last. But because we’re McDaniels, this story will be told for generations to come, often accompanied by Grandma Mac’s homemade bun recipe, with the finest strawberry freezer jam on the planet. It is the way of our people.

o    Michele Kane This picture brings back so many memories of the homes i went into. I would give care while leaving the animals on their bed. There is a bond between a human and their animal that is so powerful. We really never see the depths of it until we see what is going on with your father and his loyal companion kitty. your fathers cat is holding a vigil while you father takes his journey. Kitty has a big part in this process :)
It will be very spiritual to witness this union of these two. I pray for comfort and peace in all your hearts.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Sittin' On Top of the World

                It was 1981 when Ronald Reagan was sworn into office as America’s 40th President. He was already an American icon by then: He had been a Hollywood actor, and his last gig was as
The Old Ranger, host to TV’s most popular Western ever, Death Valley Days. The show featured “true stories of the old American west,” and its sponsor was a laundry soap called 20-Mule Team Borax. Ironically, Boraxo and Borateem, the hand soap and the laundry soap, were manufactured from borax: the evaporative mined from seasonal lakes in Death Valley. A white powdery substance, heavy in potassium nitrate, which is the major ingredient in bat and seagull “guano,” or, bat and seagull poop. Ironic because guano is also the major ingredient in an explosive that was used in the 1981 Alaskan oilfields to create gravel pits. The gravel was used to build roads and pads to keep humans from harming the fragile tundra on the North Slope of Alaska.
            One of President Reagan’s first presidential acts was to cancel all unemployment extensions, thereby making the allure of jobs in Alaska’s oilfield that much more attractive.
            And so we came, and so we gathered, in 1981, in the ragtag collection of ATCO units known as Deadhorse, and began our lives together. We had all come from somewhere else, obviously, and we were mostly in our late 20’s. We were cock-eyed optimists, seeking adventure, a job, and whatever the “strange things done in the midnight sun” had to offer.
            This was the year that MTV debuted on Cable TV, playing music videos 24 hours a day. The Walkman was only four years old. We provided our own musical video backdrop to our new lives with our boom boxes, for we couldn’t receive TV or radio reception in that arctic setting, no, not then. Many of us found jobs, or at least the ability to work eight hours for room and board, at a camp owned by Jim and Elaine Childs. They had the only general store and post office in the entire oilfield region. When the Eskimo women in their calico parkas with fur trim would come—having driven 100 miles from Nuiqsut on a snow machine with their toddlers and infants strapped to their chests—we would rush to the large boom box in the store and play Aretha Franklin’s You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman. It seemed like it was an MTV video with the most natural women on earth shopping in our little store, adorned in furs and rosy complexions from the cold, holding the hands of impossibly cute little Eskimo kids in their parkas.
            1981. Queen won the Grammy for Another One Bites the Dust. When some of our group would score jobs working on construction crews on the pipeline, and be bussed out to their jobs every morning, we would play the boom box but loudly sing our lyrics: Boom! Boom! Boom! Another one rides the bus!!
            Alaska’s 302 Union of Operating Engineers moved into our camp. When they would be getting ready to board their buses for a 12-hour day of construction in the arctic temperatures, we would create their video sendoff by playing the exotic new singer Sade’s new hit song, Smooth Operator.  While these young and old and sweet and gruff and burnt out old guys and oh-so-buff young men packed their lunchboxes, we would be singing along with Sade:
Diamond life, lover boy
He move in space with minimum waste and maximum joy
City lights and business nights
When you require streetcar desire for higher heights

No need to ask
He's a smooth operator
Smooth operator
Smooth operator
Smooth operator

Coast to coast, L.A. to Chicago, Western male
Across the North and South, to Key Largo, love for sale

A license to love, insurance to hold
Melts all your memories and change into gold
His eyes are like angels, his heart is cold
            Somehow, they all seemed to love their send off.
            1981. Walter Cronkite resigned after 19 years as head news anchor of CBS News, and was succeeded by Dan Rather. He ended his final newscast as he ended all of them: “And THAT’s the way it was, May 10th, 1981.”
            And that IS the way it was. Anything was possible. We knew we bound for adventure, fame and fortune, lasting friendships, undying love. After all: good girl Valerie Bertinelli from One Day at a Time married bad boy rocker Eddie Van Halen. So we knew we ALL could Walk Like an Egyptian. We knew that everybody could have fun tonight, everybody could Wang Chung tonight. Whatever that meant, it had to be fun. The sky was the limit and even though we might not exactly be living on top of the world, at the moment, you sure as hell could see it from here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Daddy's Dirty Little Secret



I Can’t Remember

            I can’t remember being the one to blow my father’s biggest dirty little secret when I was three years old, but I have been told I was. I was a precocious child. My big sister Sally loved to play school with me so I knew all my numbers (after all, there are only 10) by the time I was three. I also knew all of my letters and had memorized several little books so well, word by word, that people thought I could actually read.

            Joe T. Smith, my father, was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne in World War II. He jumped on Omaha Beach, northern France, on D-Day. Over 80 per cent of his battalion was lost, many of them simply shot out of the sky.  He himself sprained both of his knees upon landing and was hit by shrapnel in his left calf and left forearm that could never be removed.

            He dragged himself to a barn. When the grateful French family discovered him, they nursed him back to health at great risk to themselves. Their beautiful daughter snuck meals out to the barn. One day she said to him, in halting English, “Monsieur? May I tell you sumsing? That leetle mustache makes you look like Adolph Hitler. I ope I have not offended you.” He asked her for a razor and a mirror and shaved the mustache off, never again to darken his upper lip.  When he was well, he returned to his battalion. He never forgot the girl and her family’s courage.

            My dad had some cavities in his teeth when he went in the service. Being wartime, the US Army/Air Corps’ solution to this problem was: they pulled all his teeth and gave him dentures. His social security number was tattooed on them. Better than dog tags.

            When he returned home and married my mother, he told nobody he had false teeth. He slept with them in, and secretly washed them behind the locked bathroom door every day. Nobody knew his secret for 10 years, and my Mom always bragged to her sisters what a sweet kisser Joe was. Minty fresh.

            Until the day he was dawdling me on his knee, and I looked up into his mouth. “Daddy!” You have numbers in your mouth!” I exclaimed. I loved numbers then.

            “No I don’t!” he said, embarrassed, laughing in the kids-say-the-darndest-things kind of way.

            “Yes! You do! 527-35-2258!” I squealed, triumphant.

            “Joe? That’s your social security number. What’s going on?” my Mom said.  But I can’t remember.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Seven Loves of my Life

Deborah Bernard
English 354: Essay #3
July 12, 2012
The Seven Loves of My Life
Yes, it’s all true: I’ve been married for decades to the same man, but I’ve slept with seven different men during that time. I just couldn’t help myself. Please don’t judge me until you’ve heard my story.

1. Leopold Hotel lobby, 3 a.m. I was working my way through college as a cocktail waitress at the Royal Inn. A customer, who was a college student from Kuwait, had invited the entire bar staff over to his room at the Leopold for an afterwork party. Everyone agreed to it earlier in the evening, but now nobody wanted to go because they were too tired.

Well, I wasn’t going to stand Habib up. I was going to tell him, in person, why we weren’t coming that night. Waiting in line to ask the desk clerk to call his room. Ahead of me in line was a pretty young Lummi Indian girl. She didn’t look like she could be more than 15 years old. With her were two older Lummi Indian men, who each looked old enough be her father, and drunk enough that they were swaying like they were on a ship in high seas.

The man behind the desk had deep brown eyes. He had thick brown hair that he had pulled back into a pony tail and tucked into his shirt collar so he would look professional in his white shirt and tie. He was the largest man I had ever seen in person.

His melodic, deep voice was hypnotic to my ears. I listened as he explained the room prices to one of the two drunken men. That they didn’t have a “triple bed” but he could offer a queen size with a rollaway for $39.00.

Oh, no, are these men going to take advantage of that poor girl? I thought. Not while I was here! I would invite her home to my humble off-campus room and keep her safe until the morning! Before I could speak up, however, the men started pulling their jeans pockets inside out in the universal symbol of “I ain’t got no money.” Then innocent little Miss Bo Peep swore, stomped up to the desk clerk, and ripped her little leather shoulder bag open. “Here!” she shrilled, tossing down two $20 bills. “And this is the last time I’m paying for the room!” she yelled at the two men. The night auditor gave her a key and the trio flounced and staggered off to the elevator.

“Have you ever seen anything like that in your life?” I asked the mountain of a man behind the counter.

“Honey,” he said, “I could tell you stories that would make you cry.”
Something in that melodic voice, those soulful eyes, maybe the promise of bizarre anecdotes, intrigued me so much that I said, “Okay.”

I stood at that counter for three hours while he regaled me with tales of characters who frequented the Leopold, the after-hours poker scene in Bellingham, famous and infamous people who had stayed there. He was Italian, he was 6 foot 5 and weighed 680 pounds. I thought it was cute that he listed his weight as 495 pounds on his driver’s license. His mother had made the best Italian food in the world. His father was a Kentucky Derby jockey who was 5 foot 2 and never weighed more than 120 pounds in his life. They had both recently died and the gentle giant had drowned his sorrow in food.
I loved his voice, was mesmerized by his stories.

Forgot about everything but getting lost in those eyes, that voice. When he got off work at 6 a.m., we went together and had a drink. Thus began my affair with the giant man known as “Big Scoop,” “Tiny” or “Cheeks” to the after-hours poker community of Bellingham.

Habib, the would-be host that we stood up that night, spat an Arabic curse at me the next night at work. I didn’t understand the angry, guttural words, but he translated at the end: “And YOU are going to be a damn poor journalist!”

2. Cornwall Avenue was a hopping night club dance venue in the 70’s. The Alpine and Good Time Charlie’s had live music every Friday and Saturday. The crowd was early 20’s: college students with ID that said they were 21. Young professionals, cops and Sudden Valley real estate salesmen. Secretaries and waitresses. They made the rounds: a drink at the Leopold, a dance at the Alpine, a drink at Collie’s, then carefully drive down to the Coconut Grove on Marine Drive and drink and dance some more.

If you were very lucky, you might run into the man the locals called Tiny Dancer.
They named him after the Elton John song that came out in 1971, but his expertise was in a slightly older song : The Peppermint Twist.

Chubby Checker rose to fame singing and dancing to this song. He chose his name because Fats Domino was already a teen idol when he came on the scene. Tiny Dancer was also a large man, and when he rose to do The Twist in the Cornwall Avenue
dance halls, the other dancers would circle him and clap along. Tiny Dancer threw his substantial girth into the dance and charmed everyone on the dance floor. Owners of the dance places offered him all that he, and everyone in his party, could eat and drink, if he would just dance there.
I am not a dancer, by any stretch of the imagination. But when I “twisted” with Tiny Dancer, I was one of the Cool Kids for the first time in my life. I found him charming, irresistible. And he made me feel like he and I could dance across the universe!

That every day could be a dance production number, like Busby Berkley, or Family Guy!
Who could say no to that?

3. He was so thin that people thought he must be a long distance runner. Six foot five, 179 pounds. The pleats of his Levi Dockers lined up perfectly on his hips. I think he had every color of Dockers ever made with pleats.

He was formerly fat, so he loved his leanness. He had a “coming out party for his hipbones” when they had appeared about a long time of weight loss. Like most of the formerly fat, he was a calorie miser. He knew what he should and could eat, and wanted to maximize the volume. He would make massive stir-fries that blended hundreds of ounces of vegetables with just the right spices. The lean chicken or beef he added was more like a seasoning. He ate huge quantities of fruits and vegetables and thus quelled his appetite while maintaining his thinness.

He worked as a weight loss counselor in Carson City, Nevada, when I knew him, and he was very successful. Inspirational because he believed in the cause. He was interviewed on television, the radio, the local newspaper. He mourned that cereal manufacturers produced a cereal for children in the shape of chocolate chip cookies. Also inspirational because he had done it, white-knuckled his way to thinness by counting calories and walking and biking.

People called him Bones.

The bratty daughter of the people who owned The Sugarless Shack called him Dipstick.

A Hollywood front man came and interviewed Bones about doing a movie about his life. They wanted Richard Dreyfus to play the part of Bones. But before a contract could be inked, the movie Fatso came out with Dom Delusive and Ann Bancroft. A good movie, financially successful, critically acclaimed. Hollywood didn’t want another Fat-to-Thinness, Rags-to-Riches story. Too late.
I couldn’t resist his passion for health. I couldn’t lay in his bed and not trace his hipbones with my fingers, not marvel at his lean frame with my whole being. I fell hopelessly in love.

4. They called him The Nugget Man, because of his obsession for collecting gold nuggets from all over the world. He didn’t mine them himself. He bought from other miners and had internet connections in Australia, Nevada, Alaska. He got to know the people he bought from through daily e-mails. He named each of his nuggets, some as tiny as a flake of raisin bran, some a whole ounce of gleaming gold. There was Pokagon, Red-Eye, Chewing Gum, Big Boy, Pretty Baby. He only got ripped off once, from a company called Home Workshop. They ended their listings and all e-mails with “God bless.” The Nugget Man found out what they made in their home workshop: fake gold nuggets out of melted brass dropped into a bucket of ice water. You live, you learn.

Nugget Man also collected stamps, had ever since he was a kid. All of his stamps were American commemoratives, early airmail stamps, things like that. Perfect perforations and original gum were a huge deal for these collectors. One of Nugget Man’s original collections hangs in the Hovander Homestead House in Ferndale. Because when he was little, his parents moved to Ferndale and opened a restaurant with a horse racing theme, called The Turf. Nugget Man formed a friendship with crabby Old Man Hovander when he was 12, rode his bike out to trade stamps with the curmudgeon. Nugget Man got so good at identifying the gum and the perfs., etc., that he became a stamp appraiser. I loved Nugget Man, so I had to tell him that counting the little holes in a stamp and worrying whether somebody had ever licked a 100-year-old stamp frankly just wasn’t my cup of tea. But I was happy for him, and his sister, who shared this crazy love of stamps. He later made gentle fun of me when I became the postmaster of Deadhorse and spent my days dealing in nothing but stamps.

I loved that Nugget Man would get so into collecting whatever his current passion was. I called it Accelerated Collecting because he would immerse himself completely into his current obsession: One time it was “toned” Morgan silver dollars. We novices would say the coins were tarnished; a collector would say these were “rainbow toned” dollars and would pay many times the value. Again, he named these coins: Blue Boy, Infinity, Twin Sisters, etc. Again: I loved his passion for this collection. Again, had only a gameshow interest in the actual stuff. But I loved the collector and sometimes after we made love, I would let him tell me about the details of some new coin. Only if his obsessive interest had been fully invested in me when we loved.

5. I also fell in love with The Dutch Man, although the first rule of dating is never go out with anyone whose nickname for you is “little Dutch treat.” Well, really, The Dutch Man had no idea that he was Dutch until he was over 30 years old. His whole world could have spun out of control: he found out that he wasn’t Italian, the nationality he had cherished from birth, he was really Dutch. The parents who raised him were, in reality, his grandparents. His sister was his mother, so his cousins were actually his half-sister and half-brothers. When the Dutch Man told me all this, he was shaken. Everything that he had known was no longer true. So he had to ask me, before our affair continued any longer, was there anything that I wanted to tell him? Any secret that I might have, anything I was afraid to share, because now would be a good time. Nothing could trump his nationality-changing, no-longer-an-orphan news of that morning.

“Well, there is one thing,” I said. “The reason you wondered why you had never seen me around Bellingham before we hooked up? Well, you see, up until two years ago, I was a man.”

“What?!” the Dutch Man yelped.

“Yeah, my name was Danny and I always felt like there was this blonde woman trapped inside me,” I said.

“What?!!” the Dutch Man was getting agitated, so agitated that he began ordering Bear Claw pastries, heated with butter, as we sat in the Star of the North bakery in Fairbanks. As an alcoholic would seek a drink during a bizarre and stressful time, an overeater would turn to the pastries.

“No, no,” I said, soothingly. “I just made up that story so you could see that what you’ve discovered is weird and disturbing, but it could be worse. Nah, I’ve always been a woman and it kind of pisses me off that you would even believe that I was EVER a man.” Anything to provide comic relief for the Dutch Man.

6. Arctic Retail Man. This guy had so many nicknames. The fabulous Baker Boys, aka Baker Oilfield Services, called him “Easy Money.” Was that because he worked indoors? 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, 18 weeks at a time didn’t seem like Easy Money.

The guys from Halliburton called him “Boss” because he actually was the manager of the general store and post office. Almost everyone he managed was young, female and fiercely independent. A few were middle-aged, female and fiercely independent. When he was lucky, there was one other male in this henhouse, so the testosterone/estrogen ratio was a little more even. Easy Money treated his employees as if they were movie stars during the heyday of the Hollywood studio system:
“It’s not my business what you do after work,” he’d tell The Girls. “But just remember-- you are going to be noticed wherever you go because you’re young and female. So if want to drink or do anything, do it behind closed doors with trusted friends. And I need to have deniability: whatever you do, be at work on time in the morning and you have to be perky, present, alive! Not hung over. And I never want to hear about it if something gets out of hand.” Which worked most of the time. Except the night that young, beautiful Aubrey showed the roomful of people what she had bought on her first “R-n-R:” A nipple ring. It was spectacular, he said, but he tried not to look. Deniability.

At night, I would crawl into Arctic Retail Man’s bed and enjoy the huge down comforter with him, relishing his body heat, enjoying the work climate he created. Laugh or groan above the events of the day as the arctic winds howled outside our ATCO unit, sometimes so cold that our pillowcase would freeze to the paneling in the night.

7. The Connoisseur. Art Guy has this obsessive compulsion with buying original art. Not lithos, not copper-print engravings, but original works of art or works where he can certify that the artist touched it, had something to do with the limited edition prints that came later. Frankly, I am image-driven. I like a strong image and really don’t care if it’s a copy or not. But Art Guy has to know that the artist was involved with the piece. I mock him gently as he buys many original pieces with the same theme: sailing ships. Rivers running through meadows with or without wild or domestic animals nearby. One of his paintings, done by an Englishman early in the last century, has the wild deer on one side of the river, the domestic cow on the other side of the river. Sharing the water. I snort: “As if!” But I love how our home is decorated with framed pieces of art.

Art displayed in the Russian style: shoulder to shoulder and head to feet, they call it. Meaning the paintings are arranged side by side, ceiling to floor. Art Guy wants to paint our living room a deep rose color. My sister, the psychologist/decorator asks, “Why?” since only an inch if wall will show between the paintings.

“Don’t fall in love with a dreamer,” Kenny Rogers sang. He was wrong about that-- and the desirability of plastic surgery. I DID fall in love with a dreamer. You’ve probably figured out by now that all the men I’ve loved have been my LTD, my Little Tiny Dancer, in various stages of his life. (LTD was funnier when he was bigger, but I’m glad he’s a healthier weight now.) The obsessive/compulsive nature of his personality has assured that I would never grow bored with him. We don’t call each other “Mother” and “Daddy.” I can never order for him from any menu because I frankly don’t know which of my guys is coming to the table at that moment.

So now you know my dirty little secret. I have loved these seven men, been intimate with them. Shared their dreams, their beds, found their secret places and breathed my secrets into them. I have loved well and been well loved.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Departures: Last Day of English 354, July 26, 2012

Deborah Bernard

English 354: Final Craft Essay



You Can’t Beat a Deadhorse

The process of taking the work of this intense, six-week creative writing/non-fiction course and weaving it into one final portfolio was truly a learning experience.

“Show, don’t tell,” was New Rule Number One that I learned from my instructor Kelly Magee, and my 15 fellow writers who generously critiqued my work. The students had heard there was sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll in the early oilfield. They wanted to know more, but through scene, not summary. New Rule Number Two.

Framing was critical, New Rule Number Three, so I revised and rewrote to try to present my scenes from my point of view.

I learned about tension, pacing, and manipulating energy (NR#4) while avoiding wordiness and writerly language. Most of my rewrites resulted in less words with more bang for their buck; I searched and destroyed, seeking out excessive adjectives and dispatching them, in cold blood.

I had a serious challenge in the last section of my portfolio: I needed to sum up 30 years of arctic retailing without using straight narrative, my new worst enemy. I wanted to avoid the clichés, the wrap-it-up-in-a-bow pat ending that we love in our sitcoms, hate in our writers. I consciously added some scenes but am not sure if the final quote, “It’s just Deadhorse” is conclusive enough.

Reference: at the end of Jack Nicholson’s movie Chinatown, the woman he loves, Faye Dunaway, is gunned down in the streets as she flees in her car.


Final line: “Forget about it, Jake. It’s just…Chinatown.”

That’s what I was going for in mine but I’m not sure I provided enough drama.

I strove to be generous to my (loyal) subjects, not smugly judgmental (NR #5.)

I tried to work small and not just give some haughty overview.

I loved learning the word didactic and vowed not to be that way in my writing.

My goal is this final piece: “Get out of their heads and into their bodies.”

I take away this great quote: “Sanity is madness put to good use.” Who said that? Was it Adam or Nietzsche? I always get those two mixed up.

Did I succeed in my communication goals in this final piece, of sharing that crazy, mushroom-trip-of-a-world with my readers? Only you and my other readers can tell me that.

But I am grateful for this: the skills and techniques that I learned in this class will forever influence all my future writing. These New Lessons will also influence how I live:

With gusto, energy, variety. With generosity. Varying my pace to keep everyone interested, and engaged. Most of all me.

Thank you, Kelly!

And thank you, fellow writers.

You Can't Beat a Deadhorse

Deborah M. Bernard

English 354: Final Portfolio

You Can’t Beat a Deadhorse

July 26, 2012

3579 Words

I wanted the gold, and I sought it;

I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.

Was it famine or scurvy--I fought it;

I hurled my youth into a grave.

--Robert Service

Being from Deadhorse, Alaska, is absurd. Nobody has ever really been from here.

We are the southern-speakin’ oilfield workers from Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana. We are the Inupiat, the Eskimo people, whose fathers and uncles roamed through Deadhorse in a nomadic effort to acquire caribou or whale for our villages, who built temporary igloos as a hunting camp, but who never claimed, nor wanted to claim, possession of this land. We are the Alaskans who came up to cash in on the cornucopia of jobs that would change our state forever. We are the opportunists from the Lower 48 who heard there was work, there were wages to be earned in this remote wilderness region.

Yes. We are “The Breed of Men Who Don’t Fit In,” according to Robert Service.

Being from Deadhorse, we inhabit frantic, yet hilarious, family-like subgroups. We know that we are here because dinosaurs once walked on the tundra, plankton lived in the warm shallow seas that covered the arctic, and then they all died off. Millennia of pressure and heat turned their remains into fossil fuel, the black gold underground.

We know that we are here because global investors have deemed it profitable enough to mine this oil.

But the SMALL picture, the relevant reality of our lives is this: We are a group of adult human beings who have arrived here with neither pedigree nor family history.

Such things are meaningless in the environment of the early oilfield. Our reactions with each other are virginal, fresh, raw. Nothing is based on prior entitlement nor privilege. The playing field is level, for once. It’s not about from whence we came, who our people are, or what we have accomplished. It’s not about where we may be going in the future.

It’s only about what, and who, we are in this present moment. There is no class system here, save one: the working class. On steroids: Seven days a week, at least 12 hours a day, striving to achieve what may be impossible in brutal conditions which may be intolerable.

Like souls in Antarctica, or people who have gathered in a Plexiglas bubble containing heat and oxygen on the ocean floor, the only relevant thing is what we are capable of right now.


There’s a breed of men that don’t fit in,

A race that can’t stay still;

So they break the heart of kith and kin,

And they roam the world at will.

If they just went straight they might go far,

They are strong and brave and true;

And they’re always tired of the things that are,

And they want the strange and new.

--Robert Service

1981. Ronald Reagan has just taken office and had cancelled all extensions to unemployment benefits. Joseph, the love of my life, and I were enjoying unemployment for the only time in our lives. (I was 29, he was 35.) We had been looking forward to a “long winter’s nap.” When President Reagan cancelled the benefits, we were more or less summoned to Fairbanks, Alaska, by Joe’s older sister Jean.

May Day 1981 was record heat in Fairbanks. Literally 90 degrees. We had to leave Jiminy Cricket, our poodle mix, in Jean’s pickup while we went into the unemployment office.

After a surreally long wait, we got up to the window, where a weary, black, 40’s-something clerk greeted us. We told him we wanted to find work in the oilfield, preferably together, with the same R-n-R schedule.

“Honey,” he said, his dusky voice plaintiff, “don’t you imagine that if I knew how to get up to the oilfield, I wouldn’t be standing here talking to YOU?”

We registered for unemployment anyway, then went back to Jean’s pickup where poor Jiminy’s tongue was hanging out. Emergency water rations for our dog, then on to the employment agencies

Three days later, Alyeska Security called Joseph to be a security guard at Pump Station Four. I got a call from Cecil Kessick, Far North Insurance Adjustors, because Frontier Equipment just had a shop burn down, up in Prudhoe Bay. Cecil needed a temporary secretary to help him catalogue all of the items lost in the fire for the insurer, Lloyds of London.

Joe put the Alyeska job on hold, hoping for something where he and I could eventually work together. Pump Four is 120 miles south of the oilfield. I left with Cecil the next day to fly to Deadhorse.

Cecil was 60-ish, a compact and chipper little man who wore an Eddie Bauer tan plaid wool shirt, beige khaki chinos and rubber soled boots under his fur-trimmed beige parka.

Cecil was a hunting guide who worked insurance claims as a sideline. He proudly showed me the stuffed musk ox, Boone and Crockett certified World Class, on display at Fairbanks International Airport. It bore a brass plaque engraved with “Cecil Kessick, Hunting Guide.” A musk ox looks like a giant hairy ox with a prehistoric headpiece over its horns that resembles the parted hair of Dagwood Bumstead.

We boarded a Wien Air Alaska 727 for our 75-minute flight into Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay. We flew over majestic snow-capped mountains, snaking frozen rivers. The terrain only flattened as we began our descent.

Prudhoe Bay is as flat as a pancake. North Dakota in summer. Mars in winter. It may not be the end of the world, but you can see it from here. The ground was still frozen and the snow had not melted, despite the 90-degree weather in Fairbanks, 500 miles to the south.

Driving us over the gravel roads to Frontier Base Camp, Cecil acted as tour guide, pointing out the facilities that rose impressively from the gravel pads built on the frozen tundra.

“We call this one The Hilton,” he said, pointing to Sohio’s camp, an ultra-modern modular two-story structure, balanced on steel girders. “It has an Olympic-size swimming pool, with saunas and stream rooms. And they’re no fools. The standing water of the swimming pool reduces their fire insurance.”

Frontier Base Camp is about a 30-minute drive from the airport. Like most smaller camps, it is a collection of ATCO trailer units, with a roof and a floor built over and under so residents walk down interior halls to their rooms, bathrooms, dining hall.

The company was owned by John C. “Tennessee” Miller. He was one of that breed of men that don’t fit in, who went from rags to riches to rags to riches on a regular basis. He had raised Tennessee Walking Horses down home on the Tennessee/Kentucky border.

He was a brilliant “dirt man” and had brought his bulldozers and other equipment up from Fairbanks before there was a road on a “cat train.” Which was: ATCO units and heavy equipment loaded on skids and pulled along by D-8 Caterpillars over impossible terrain in the dead of winter. Snow and ice made this feat possible. This project was so dangerous that the progress was charted and reported in every edition of the Anchorage Daily News.

He was rewarded later with the contract to build the Dalton Highway, the 500-mile gravel road from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay.

I complimented him on his Cat Train accomplishment the moment I met him. “Oh, that was a necessity,” he drawled. “I had to keep that equipment movin’. It was about to be re-possessed!”

Tennessee Miller had several companies in the greater Prudhoe Bay area. Frontier Rock and Sand was the union side, using all union workers: Operating Engineers Local 302, the Pile Drivers, Laborers, etc. Except for the Teamsters Local 959. Jessie Carr, president of the Alaska teamsters, and Tennessee Miller had bad blood between them, akin to an old fashioned backwoods feud. Nobody knows what caused it. Had both men loved the same woman? Had one cheated the other out of money? Oil lease land? Nobody knew.

But every Monday morning Tennessee Miller’s secretary sent a letter to Jessie Carr’s Teamster offices in Anchorage, requesting so many Teamsters for that week’s work. Jessie Carr never sent him any so every Wednesday he would hire non-union “drivers” from the general population.

I found out years later that it wasn’t my secretarial skills nor my stellar resume that caused Cecil Kessick to hire me. They were looking for the quintessential dumb blonde, somebody naïve from out of state. Somebody who had never heard that the owner of Frontier Companies and the president of the Alaska Teamsters were sworn enemies. Why? Because if one breath, one hint of even slightly suspected arson were whispered, the insurance company wouldn’t have covered the shop fire loss.

Cecil set me up in an office. I interviewed man after man who came forward with a list of what they had lost in the fire. Everybody had arctic gear, tools. A half dozen guys had large boom boxes, worth about $500 each in those days. Many had Walkmans, extensive cassette collections. My only job was to neatly type up the contents and estimated retail value, without judgment. I did secretly wonder how large that shop would have to have been to accommodate six large boom boxes.

The foremen came forward with their lists: giant pieces of equipment. D-8 Cats and Front End Loaders and a B-70 Belly Dump. One cab over Peterbilt 18-wheeler truck. All foreign terms to me except for the truck. I had heard truckers guffawing at their Fairbanks hangout, The Sunset Strip: “How’s YOUR Peter Built?” they would say, then roar with laughter.


My temporary job would soon end. I inquired who a girl had to hug to get a permanent office job at this company. Tim Tyler, Frontier office manager, was known as The Round Mound of Sound. He commandeered a desk that had three telephones and two crackling CB radio. Sometimes all six were squawking at once. He took me under his wing. Said to go see K. Freeny, the manager, up in the Crow’s Nest. Do not accept a drink, if one was offered, and whatever you do, do NOT wink at him.

“Why would I wink at him?” I asked Tim.

“Mr. Freeny has a tic that makes his right eye wink constantly,” my new mentor Tim explained. “Don’t wink back. He’ll think you’re mocking him.”

We met. I didn’t wink. He hired me.

From the ashes of Frontier’s shop rose the Phoenix of my oilfield career.

Joseph landed a job with Childs’ Equipment Services less than a week later. He was hired to be their Hardware Man, to build and stock a new hardware section connected to their general store, which was already a going concern.

Joseph was an accountant and not familiar with tools. He wasn’t handy at all; his gifts lay elsewhere. We once had a fight because we couldn’t hang a paper towel rack together, and the rack had pre-drilled holes. (In our defense, the holes had been drilled wonkily at the factory, but we didn’t discover that until later.) Joseph embarked on his oilfield career on uncharted waters over unfamiliar seas.

As did I. I went from being a journalist to being a secretary for an oilfield construction company. I learned about heavy equipment and the men and women who operated it. I developed a southern accent from sheer osmosis.

I loved the structure of a construction job: A beginning, a middle, and an end. And afterwards you could point to your project forever: We changed the map of North America by building that causeway into the ocean. It’s called West Dock. I was there.

Thus began our oilfield adventure. Kind of like a fairy tale, to me.

The difference between a fairy tale and an oilfield story was explained to me by a sweet-talkin’, southern roughneck gentleman named Billy Joe:

“Well, a fairy tale begins with, ‘Once upon a time.’ But an o-field story begins with, ‘Now this ain’t no shit.’”


You come to get rich (damned good reason);

You feel like an exile at first;

You hate it like hell for a season,

And then you are worse than the worst.

It grips you like some kinds of sinning,

It twists you from foe to a friend;

It seems it’s been since the beginning,

It seems it will be to the end.

--Robert Service

“Cocaine is God’s way of saying you’re making too much money,” said my camp roommate Bobbi. She sat cross-legged on her twin bed in our shared room, her Hello Kitty bedspread already neatly in place, expertly drawing lines of white powder on a mirror in her lap. It was 6:30 in the morning.

Bobbi had thick black hair and creamy brown skin. She was pretty of face and figure, soft spoken, genuinely sweet. She was 20 years old and working as a Teamster Office Technician for a surveying company. She made $20 an hour for basic secretarial work. $30 an hour at time-and-a-half, and $40 an hour on Sundays. In 1981, this was

Money. Beyond. Belief.

I worked for Frontier Rock and Sand, doing the same kind of work that Bobbi did, but I was a non-union secretary. I made $12 an hour, time-and-a-half for anything over 40 hours a week. No double-time Sundays. No shop steward nor union protection.

Still, that translated into $1200 a week for me. That was $400 more, per week, than I had made in a month as a fulltime journalist and bureau chief, Orcas Island Branch, Friday Harbor Journal. I was thrilled.

Bobbi made double what I made for doing the same job, and I taught her the tricks of the trade: how to center a title on our IBM Selectric Typewriters. How to change the metal ball for different fonts, a necessity for the Sunday reports that ARCO required: seven copies of a 15-page report on that week’s progress for our respective contractors.

Extra credit for charts. How to highlight the name of each recipient. How to bind the reports in the clear plastic folder with the ARCO Blue slider down the left side.

In return, Bobbi taught me the ropes for surviving arctic camp life.

My first day at Arco’s MCC (Main Construction Camp,) I put my suitcase in my 8x10 room which I would share with Bobbi. I walked down the green paisley carpeted hallway to the ladies’ bathroom. I encountered a woman, a fellow East MCC Camp dweller, and said, “Good morning.” As nice and bright as I knew how to be. She was three feet away and did not acknowledge that I even existed.

“Oh, dear,” I thought. “Perhaps she is deaf?”

Then I encountered another woman. Same greeting. Same non-response.

“Oh, no!” I thought. “Have I been in a couple relationship so long that I have lost

my ability to relate as an individual?”

After work that night I met Bobbi for the first time, in our room, and shared my experiences. She laughed brightly and said, “Oh! Don’t take it personally! Those women work directly for ARCO. They’ve been instructed not to fraternize with us.”

“Who is us?” I asked Bobbi.

“Well, we work for the contractors that work for ARCO,” she said. “We even made up a little song about it.”

She launched into this ditty, sung to the tune of Camp Town Ladies Sing This Song:

“Lowlife, scumbag, contractor hands,

Doo-dah, doo-dah!

Lowlife, scumbag, contractor hands,

Oh, da doo-dah day!”

Well, I was relieved. It wasn’t me so much as it was who I worked for. Phew!

Bobbi also taught me the cocaine protocol:

If somebody offers you a line, snort the line if you want to. But, if you do, remember that you are socially obligated to reciprocate at some future date. Like going to somebody’s house for dinner, you will be expected to pony up in the future.

“Well, that lets me out,” I told Bobbi. “I will probably never spend $125 for a tiny envelope of cocaine, so I will just always say no.”

“Unless---,” Bobbi said, “you are at a gathering in somebody’s room, and they pass around a mirror with several lines on it. Then you should partake so they don’t think

you’re a nark.”

Good to know.

Bobbi enjoyed her cocaine, and I enjoyed our friendship. So I was sad when her oilfield career was cut short by her passion for the substance.

Bobbi stayed out late, 3 a.m. late, on a Saturday night, partying with her friends. I didn’t go. I never went because of The Protocol that she had taught me. She was so exhausted that she missed work on Sunday. That was $480 in wages, in her world, plus somebody else had to do the mandatory ARCO report.

Severely reprimanded, Bobbi vowed to never let this happen again. But it did. The following Sunday. The oilfield is a harsh and demanding mistress; it’s miraculous that she was allowed even a second strike.

As Bobbi packed her suitcase to leave, forever, she hugged me, then shrugged, philosophically, and said again, “Cocaine is God’s way of saying you’re making too much money.”


I wanted the gold, and I got it--

Came out with a fortune last fall.

Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,

And somehow the gold isn’t all.


There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;

It’s luring me on as of old;

Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting

So much as just finding the gold.

--Robert Service





Thus began our arctic adventure. Soon we both became Shopkeepers to the Slope. For over three decades, we were the touchstone, the one thread of continuity as this myriad of subgroups came and went.

There were the Vietnam veteran pilots who came to work for ERA Helicopters.

Fun-loving, free spirited guys who had flown into hell and back. The arctic challenges were child’s play after what they had survived. Transporting workers to an ice-choked riverbed or airlifting a rogue grizzly to a different locale in a net suspended under the chopper was infinitely better than sniper fire.

Roger Ramjet (we never knew his real last name) walked into the store one day while Stephanie was discussing penis size with another customer. This was before the “Apparently Size Does Matter” advertising campaign. Right about when the “Where’s the Beef?” commercial had begun.

It was typical for men to brag about the size of their penises (peni?) Roger proudly told us, “Mine is just like anybody else’s penis, only much, much smaller. Put it this way: I will probably never touch bottom, but I can sure bang the hell out of the sides.” We loved Roger, and not just for his small penis.

There were the Powder Men, the guys that used explosives to blow up the Oxbow pit to create the gravel used for roads, pads, West Dock. By day, they created explosions, using “Prell,” a mixture of diesel and seagull poop (“guano”.) Its explosive qualities were discovered in an unfortunate accident on a tanker in the Gulf of Mexico.

All of these guys were registered with the state of Alaska; all had name tags with their photos and certifications on display. By day, demolition experts. After work, the most genteel, sweet, generous guys you’d ever want to meet. Their foreman, Smitty, was missing his right arm.

The Powder Men reminded me of Joe’s old poker buddies in Bellingham. Truly gentlemen when not playing. Because all of their sexual aggressions were played out on the table. The masochists. The sadists. The screamers-during-orgasm. The flirts. The commitment phobics. The spankers. The spankees. The role players.

Shortly after we first got to Prudhoe Bay, one of Joe’s old poker cronies showed up there, dancing at the Shriner’s fund-raiser party with three of the most gorgeous black women the slope had ever seen.

“Cutter Jack! It’s me! Joe’s girlfriend!” I shouted over the Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away.” He barely acknowledged me. He was here to hit a big poker game, to let his girls make some serious coin. It was as if he didn’t know me from The Outside.

It was always surreal when our two worlds collided.

Once we talked Jim Childs, our boss, into hiring our friend Dana Jefferson to cook for our camp. But we forgot to tell him to take the six earrings out of his right ear. He was a great cook and the oilfield workers loved him. But Jim thought his cooking was “too fancy” when he made a breakfast quiche. (This was the time of the book: “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche.”)

Having Dana in our camp was like having a long-lost brother walk into your dream.

“Cook American, Hiawatha!” Jim Childs told Dana. Our friend was a homosexual Lummi Indian man , so the slur couldn’t have been more politically incorrect.

Dana was fired after only a few months. His fatal mistake: He cooked corned beef and cabbage, carrots, potatoes. But he wrote on the dry-erase board, “New England Boil.”

“I told you to cook American, Hiawatha!” Jim said. Back home in Bellingham, he would subconsciously revert to a southern accent while drinking. “What did you do to Dana?” our Bellingham friends would ask.

“It’s just Deadhorse,” we would say.






Tuesday, July 17, 2012


7/09. Thunder and lightning woke me at 3:40 a.m. Remarkable, because nothing wakes me up. If I'd been alone in a stateroom on the Titanic, I would still be there. The flashes of lightning were so bright that they lit up our bedroom like a lightswitch had been turned on. Then off. At first I thought it was the party house across the street, blowing off the last of their Indian reservation fireworks.Then I heard the thunder. Like the ominous rumble of snare drums in the Civil War that signalled: You are about to be fired upon. I thought: I'm so lucky. Nobody has ever fired upon me. Until now? I couldn't be sure it was just a storm. I was afraid to peek out the levelor blinds for fear that there was a militia on my lawn. Afraid to open the door for fear Athena the cat would run out and become the victim of a drunken fireworks prank. Mr. Insomnia, my sweet lover, slept like a rockabye baby upon the treetops.
7/10 Last night's thunderstorm was front page news. Oh good! It really was just a storm.

7/11 The lightning and thunder came again and was spectacular. I have not heard thunder that loud in my life. It sounded like God was bowling. Not just a rumble, but a sharp report. We sat on the front porch on Forest Street and watched the sky light up, the drops of rain start to fall in the birdbath and cat bowl in the yard, listened to the crack of the thunder, yelling, "Yay, God!" each time. It's possible there was wine involved. Just sayin'.
7/12 The Forest Service announced that it is on full alert because of the lightning storms. Forest fires typically start several days after the storm, as a spark becomes a flame becomes a FIRE!!!!
7/13 Sad news from my home town of Lake Stevens today. There was a fatality in the lightning storm that hit there, hard, early this morning. A bolt of lightning hit a tall tree in south Lake Stevens just as an eagle landed on the tree.
The impact was so intense that the tree exploded. The eagle died instantly, not one mark on her body. The death possibly caused by the concussion. Everyone there is afraid that this was Martha,
who has been mated to George the bald eagle for over 25 years. There are road signs and metal art about George and Martha all over town. They are icons in Lake Stevens, nobody ever dreaming that Martha would die so dramatically. The eagle's carcass was sent to Colorado for a Necropsy. If that proves she was a 25 year old mature female, people will know it was Martha. But locals think they already know, as a lone eagle circles and loops and drifts over the remnants of the tree struck by lightning. George already knows. Lightning storms are all fun and games until somebody dies.