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.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Nudity in the 21st Century

Naked Cyclists in Bellingham, 2012

Bellingham. A hot summer's night in 1972.  The Shriners were having a fund-raiser in the formal ballroom, the Chandelier Room, of The Leopold Hotel, the Grande Dame of hotels. The finest hotel north of Seattle, festooned with art deco lions and original art by Sydney Lawrence. Its inlaid marble and tile lobby was presided over by a massive, yet soulful, night auditor named Joe Bernard.

He had watched Bellingham's high society assemble that evening, saw distinguished couples arrive in  black tie and ballgowns. He figured the average age of that crowd was probably right at 70. There was much glad-handing and back-slapping as some paused at the downstairs bar. Scotch for the gentlemen, champagne for the ladies. This was Their Night. The night when they could Make A Difference and raise money for those less fortunate. Which probably included everyone outside that ballroom at that moment, in their estimation.

The couples left the lobby and retired to the Chandelier Room. Joe started his nightly auditing of the seven restaurants and bars of the Grande Dame from his perch at the front desk.

Suddenly the tranquility of the lobby was shattered. The side door slammed open and five naked  people burst into the room. They all had hair down to the middle of their backs. All appeared to be in their early 20's. All were lean, athletic. And all had a destination in mind: The Chandelier Room.

Streaking was a phenomenon that occurred in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Naked people would run through serious events of the time. It happened at the Republican National Convention. It happened on late night talk shows and at PTA meetings. Perhaps the streakers were trying to make people really evaluate the societal norms of that day. Also, they probably really liked their own physiques: I never heard of an overweight streaker.

Joe was secretly thrilled at the colorful interruption to his ho-hum night shift. This was going to make a great story later at the after-hours poker game he was going to when he got off work at 6 a.m.

The streakers entered the Chandelier Room and stayed for what seemed like an enternity: three minutes? four? Joe couldn't be sure.

Then, like a group of synchronized swimmers, with no water in sight but the small fountain bubbling from the lion's mouth into a 19th century tile bowl in the lobby, the streakers left the ballroom. Zipped through the lobby like a school of fish. Exited through the double set of bevelled glass doors leading to Cornwall Street, where surely there was a getaway car waiting. For they disappeared into the night.

Couples burst out of the Chandelier Room. One white haired woman, garbed in white satin and sequins, fell upon the antique embroidered couch in the lobby. "Oh! What has become of society?" she sobbed, as her tuxedoed husband fanned her with the  program from the fundraiser. "Oh, Harold, it's just hideous! Hideous, I tell you!" the lady in the burgundy formal with white fox fur collar shrieked.She fluttered her hands into the air, her two-karat flawless diamond ring shimmering in the chandelier light.

Another matron fell into a Henry the 8th side chair, the back of her hand dramatically shading her eyes. Alas! Too late to keep her from seeing the spectacle.

The police arrived in moments.

"So, how many were there, and were they men or women?" the uniformed cop barked at Joe the Night Auditor.

"There were five streakers, but I couldn't tell if they were men or women: they all had long hair!" Joe told the cop.

"Oh, a wise guy, huh? I can see we're going to have to talk to somebody else!" the cop said.

Bellingham. A hot summer's Sunday in 2012. Joe Bernard is in a van with his friend Luke, heading off to walk the trails of Whatcom Falls Park. In the van are Luke's sons, Jacob and Adrian, and their friends Olin and Soren, and Joe's wife Debbie. The boys range in age from 10-12. Minutes into their ride, at the foot of Forest Street, 30 nude bicyclists suddenly appear and ride towards the van.

Some of the women cyclists have painted flowers on their breasts; some have painted eyeballs. One is wearing an extremely adorable pink tutu. The men sport loincloths, or nothing at all except a coonskin tail tied around their waist and extending down their backsides. All are wearing helmets. Some are carrying cardboard signs that say, "Get out there and do it!"

Luke, Joe and Debbie, the adults, are mesmerized. "Wow! Look at this!" The four boys are mortified.
One of them bends down and puts his windbreaker over his head, avoiding the naked assault on his eyes. The other three boys have a red-cheeked, "What just happened?!" look. Luke is a good father and tries to make the sighting seem like no big deal. But all seven of us will remember it forever.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


Thoughts on the Tour de France

By Deborah Bernard

My dear husband just retired from 32 years in the oilfield. I left with him, to begin the next chapter of our life. Plus we wanted to see if there really was “Life After Deadhorse.”

The people of the oilfield gave us an incredible sendoff. There was a party with two cakes and Felix’s wonderful h’ors doevres. There were stories and lots of laughs as we shared memories. There were cards and gifts. A baleen boat from Stevie and Gary that Joe cherishes. And….cash! These generous folks took up a collection for us!

We were thrilled, kind of embarrassed, but happy. We decided that we wanted to do our friends proud and buy something significant with their cash. Not just a case of expensive champagne, but something symbolic of newfound freedom.

So we are proud owners of two Raleigh 21-speed bikes. His and hers. Of course we bought the helmets, too.

But. We hadn’t rode bikes for over 30 years. We had been avid bicyclists when we lived in Carson City, Nevada, before our oilfield career began. But, our bikes were stolen, one at a time, and we never replaced them.

So now we are learning to ride bikes all over again.  Joe noticed something strange:

He asked, “Is this a sign of old age? When I ride my bike around the neighborhood, people say things to  me like,

“Awww, that’s great!”

“Are you okay?”

"God bless you!"

“Are you training for the Tour de France? Well, it's just great that you're out  there!"

Since the Tour de France is going on right now, Joe thought this comment was a little more appropriate.  "The frenetic first 60 km of the 158 km from Belfort claimed another casualty as Olympic road race champion Samuel Sanchez briefly lost consciousness after hitting his head in a crash," we read on the BBC Sport website. So of course we do not ride without our helmets.

Joe is happy to be biking, and yet he is quite sure that nobody would've made such comments to him when he was in his 40's.

George Burns said there are three ages of men:

Middle Age.  And,
"You look good!"

Joe is afraid that there are three stages of bicyclists:

"You kids be careful on the road!" (Youth)
"If you're zipping down to the store, pick me up some cheese, can you?" (Middle Age) and
"God bless you! It's so great you're still riding!" (Old Age)

But he's determined to keep riding until people stop saying such things.
Is it getting any easier? No, but it's not getting any harder. So he will take
that victory in the spirit of Lance Armstrong and keep on riding every day.
With gratitude in his heart for the generosity of the people of Prudhoe Bay.

Debbie Does Deadhorse

Debbie Does Deadhorse
By Debbie Bernard
English 354, July 9, 2012
The difference between a Fairy Tale and an Oilfield Story was explained to me by a roughneck from Tennessee. Visualize a slow, sexy, sweet southern drawl:
“Well, darlin’, a fairy tale beings with, ‘Once upon a time.’ But an oilfield story (pronounced O-field story) begins with, ‘Now, this ain’t no shit.’”

It was 1981. Ronald Reagan was in office and had cancelled all extensions to unemployment benefits. My fiancé Joseph and I were on unemployment for the only time in our lives, and were looking forward to “a long winter’s nap.” I was 29, he was 35. When the benefits were cancelled, we were more or less summoned to Fairbanks, Alaska, from our Bellingham home, by Joe’s sister Jean.

Jean and her husband Art lived in a house trailer off Peger and Davis Roads in Fairbanks with two fat little poodle mixes whose nasal incessant barking made it sound like they must have asthma.

Single wide trailer with two bedrooms and one bathroom. Shiny fake pine paneling and green shag carpet. Oh, and a “wanagon,” the Alaska name for a plywood room tacked on to the front porch that kept the excruciating cold of winter and the gloopy mud of spring breakup from entering the trailer.
Sharing their quarter-acre was a giant metal shop building that housed Art’s pride and joy, his 18-wheeler truck, a Peterbilt, or Cab Over Pete in the trucker vernacular. “Hey, how’s YOUR Peter Built?” the truckers would joke with each other at
The Sunset Strip, Fairbanks’ local trucker hangout. And they would laugh like nothing had ever been that funny before.

Joseph and I had come to Fairbanks, sponsored by Joe’s sister Jean, for a visit. “For God’s sake, Joey! Please don’t wear your pink and white belt here! And please don’t kiss in The Strip!” Jean would plead.

Art was Jean’s second husband. Both were old enough to be our parents.
He was explosively angry much of the time, and profane. He bellowed at Jean all day long, making us wonder if “verbal” was his only form of abuse.

His fingernails were always dirty with truck grease, which is why Jean had married him. Her first husband, Bill, the love of her life, had been obsessed with hand-washing. When he died, Jean actually listed as one of her pre-requisites for her next husband: dirty fingernails. Art drove their little pickup like a maniac around Fairbanks, driving way too fast, then slamming on the brakes at a stoplight, miraculously avoiding collisions. On ice. Which made us wonder how he maneuvered in his 18-wheeler.

We frankly feared him.

So when Art started talking about taking us up to Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse in his 18-wheeler, we were nervous. Remember that Art was the original Ice Road Trucker, 30 years before the History Channel romanticized these truckers. But Jean was insistent that we had to see it! The Great Alaska Pipeline! Jobs for the unemployed!

The Dalton Highway, the “Haul Road,” is a 500-mile gravel road that connects the Prudhoe Bay oilfields with Fairbanks. It is as far as you can go by road in North America. End of the road. Top of the world.

In fact, if you want to be in the Guinness Book for having traversed the longest road in the world, you have to either start or end in Deadhorse. The other end of your journey will be Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of South America.

The James W. Dalton Highway, once called the North Slope Haul Road, parallels the pipeline and is one of the most isolated roads in the United States. Despite the remoteness, the Dalton Highway carries a good amount of truck traffic, according to Wikipedia: about 160 trucks daily in the summer, plus large and small tour buses, and about 250 trucks daily in the winter.

The BBC featured this road on World’s Most Dangerous Roads.

Truckers have named parts of this road. The Bluffs. Oil Spill Hill. Oh Shit Corner. Beaver Slide.

“Sure, I’ll take ya, on two conditions,” Art grumbled. Smug, grudging. “”First, you can’t tell anybody I brought the both of ya at the same time.” Art owned his own truck, but the Weaver Brothers employed him. And they frowned upon passengers.
Especially more than one, since we would have to take turns riding in the sleeper. Which didn’t have a seatbelt.

“And,” he said, emphasizing the word by taking a noisy slurp on his ceramic coffee mug, which looked like he was drinking out of a woman’s tit, “if I tell you to jump out of the truck, ya gotta jump. No questions. No jabber. Just go, as far out as you can.”

He explained that if we were going over Atigun Pass, the highest of the three mountain ranges that we would be passing through, and that if the truck lost momentum, or the tires locked up in the ice and snow and started sliding backwards, there would be no stopping it and therefore our only chance to survive was to jump clear of the truck. Pronto.

We said: All righty, then. But we felt:

Whisky. Tango. Foxtrot. What The Fuck? In trucker vernacular, which uses the military alphabet on their CB radios.

The ride up was visually spectacular. We saw the snow-capped mountains in the distance, and suddenly, we were driving up the gravel road to the mountain summit. Joseph, Art and myself in the cab and sleeper. A load of 36 inch pipe, weighing tons, being pulled by us.

But emotionally it was a white-knuckle roller coaster ride. With the threat of “Jump!” hanging over us, we were nervous anyway. Art stopped for a flat tire. I had to pee. We were flat smack in the middle of flat country, with no mountains or hills anywhere. I picked the only private spot I could find: in between the two big tires on the front of Art’s truck.

I now know Alaskan women who can pee outdoors, discreetly and efficiently. I am not one of those women.

I was squatted down, hoping to pee on the gravel road between Art’s big tires, and not on my own pants, shoes or socks. At the critical moment, just as I was about to let ‘er rip, a giant SHUSH! emitted from Art’s truck. Novice that I was, I didn’t realize that these giant trucks emit such a noise a few minutes after they have stopped. So I thought the truck was starting to roll. With me, vulnerable, squatting in between its massive wheels.
Of course my pants were up and I was out of there in a split second. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

And Art was bellowing: “Joey! Bring me a five-inch extension!”
Joe had no idea what a “five-inch extension” was, or its reason for existence. But he knew that Art needed one RIGHT NOW. Unable to discern what that might be in Art’s giant red toolbox, Joe simply picked up the entire tool box, which had to weight 150 pounds, and ran it over to Art.
Finally, Joseph and I and a truckload of pipe were delivered into Deadhorse. We offloaded the pipe at Lynden Trucking in Deadhorse, then Art drove us through the guard shack and onto the Prudhoe Bay oilfield.

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.

So the gleaming, modern buildings that suddenly appeared on the gravel pads built on the flat tundra seemed amazing. It was like Art’s 18 Wheeler had fallen out of the hurricane of the Haul Road and landed in the Merry Old Land of Oz. The dreary black-and-white of the gravel roads gave way to glorious Technicolor!

Inside the gleaming structures, the oilfield camps were posh. Amenities finer than any five-star hotel. The dining rooms offered sumptuous offerings, several entrees, salad bars, dessert tables groaning with food.

Workout rooms with state-of-the-art treadmills that monitor your heart with an aligator clip on your ear! A second-story indoor walking track, scientifically banked so you walked one direction on Mondays, the opposite on Tuesdays, so you didn’t overdevelop muscles on one side of your legs. Who knew?

Indoor atriums full of green plants. Wouldn’t that be a fun job, tending to the indoor plants in this arctic wonderland?

“Spike Rooms” full of donuts, oozing with caramel frosting, soft ice cream machines with vats of hot fudge, hot dogs on a carousel, cases of four-ounce cans of juice, and pudding cups, all free for the taking. Which would explain the glittery trail that twinkled in Art’s truck headlights all the way up the Haul Road. Juice cans and the foil tops off pudding cups, discarded by truckers like Hansel and Gretel so they could find their way back to civilization.

So the Fairy Tale and the Oilfield Story blend into one. And “Once Upon a Time” morphs into, “Now, this ain’t no shit.”

Monday, July 2, 2012


I've always believed that who a reporter votes for, what religion they are, who they love, should not be something they have to discuss publicly. As long as a journalist shows fairness and honesty in his or her work, their private life shouldn't matter. I’ve stuck to those principles for my entire professional career, even when I’ve been directly 12039_084asked “the gay question,” which happens occasionally. I did not address my sexual orientation in the memoir I wrote several years ago because it was a book focused on war, disasters, loss and survival. I didn't set out to write about other aspects of my life.
Recently, however, I’ve begun to consider whether the unintended outcomes of maintaining my privacy outweigh personal and professional principle. It’s become clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something - something that makes me uncomfortable, ashamed or even afraid. This is distressing because it is simply not true. --Anderson Cooper's comments, 7/02/2012

Wow. Anderson Cooper has come out with his secret today, although it was never a secret from his colleages, or, presumably, from his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt.

Which brings me to the dichotomy between old school journalism: accurante, unbiased reporting of the events of the day, wherein the reader does not know The Messenger's background nor attitudes. Versus, my current college course, Creative Writing Non Fiction, where the writer employs many techniques: point of view, imagery, conflict/tension, setting, scene, dialogue, metaphor, succinct description, to connect with the reader; yes, even self-disclosure.

Reportage vs. Revelation.

My former profession vs. my future profession.

Which is not to say that some communication techniques cannot be shared by the two intersecting universes. They both celebrate and promote great writing.

I am not exactly sure where these techniques will take me, nor what impact they will have on my writing style.

But I am quite sure that the ride will be entertaining, at the very least.  So stay tuned to this blog for future updates. 

And now, in the immortal signoffs of those past great communicators:

"And now you know.....the rest of the story.  Good day!" --Paul Harvey

"And that's part of our world tonight." -- Dan Rather

"That's the news and I. Am. Outta here!"  -- Dennis Miller

"I'm so glad we had this time together." -- Carol Burnett

"And that's the way it was, July 2nd, 2012." --Walter Cronkite

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Things I Learned in The Oilpatch
By Debbie Bernard
English 354
That if you encounter a group of men who are laughing really hard, and you ask them what they’re laughing at, and they say, “You don’t want to know!” Grab a clue: You really don’t want to know. I could’ve lived my entire life without knowing that Mark one time emitted such a foul fart while driving Will to lunch in the company truck that Will--tough, macho, Will!--actually threw up. Three times! Luckily he managed to open the door and throw up on the ground.

Later, I questioned my friend Mark about The Incident. Mark, my witty, analytical purchasing-agent friend, whom I thought I knew well. How could he also be capable of such unthinkable cruelty? Not to mention such toxic gas?

Mark confirmed the incident and said his first thought was, “What did I eat before The Fart Heard Round the Oilpatch? I’ve got to remember so I can recreate it!”

“It doesn’t seem like something you would do,” I said.

“Oh, you don’t understand!” Mark said. “Will used to come in my office when I was on the phone with a vendor that I’d been waiting for hours to talk to.” (Mark’s office phone was not cordless, so he was literally tied to the desk in the tiny office) “He would then fart--several times!--going around in a circle like a motorboat, and leave and shut the door, laughing his ass off!”

“Well, I knew that Will had a weak stomach. I bided my time. Waited until it was just him and me in the truck. Locked the windows. And got my revenge,” Mark explained, a faint tinge of pride in his voice.

“It’s all fun and games until somebody throws up,” Dan, the Outside Salesman, concluded. “And, hey, we told you that you really didn’t want to know!”

That there really is a Good Old Boys network and, if you have a vagina, you cannot join it.

That men who move dirt and build roads for a living are every bit as intrigued, and every bit as entertained, by what they do as are seven year old boys playing with their Tonka trucks. It‘s just that the men’s sandboxes are much, much bigger.

That there is a flipside to the macho, sexist attitude that prevailed in the early years of the oilfield. Yes, they might call you “Sweetie.“ And you must remember that this was 1981. The Feminist Movement had taught us wonderful things, but had also taught us they we weren’t The Girls! We were Women! And that we pay for our own dinner and open our own car doors, thank you very much (WHAT were we thinking?)

The flip side to the seemingly sexist, politically-incorrect-by-this-century’s-standards is this: Those men who called you “Darlin’” would fiercely defend you, appreciate you more than you possibly deserved, rescue you when you were in trouble, treat you like a gem precious beyond measure, a beloved object. But, hey, a precious object with privileges! I saw the dichotomy, the double standard. However, I was making more money in a week than I did in a month as a degreed journalist in the Lower 48. More, I was quite sure, than President Reagan’s secretary.

So go right ahead. You can call me “Darlin,” Darlin’.

Monday, June 25, 2012

North Dakota Toy Land

North Dakota Toy Land

By Debbie Bernard

“Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who are you are.”--Jose Ortega y Gassett

Melba Marie McDaniel was born on a bitter cold morning in Courtney, North Dakota in December, 1923. She was the seventh and last child of Frank and Josie, and was born in their bedroom while a blizzard howled outside the farmhouse.

North Dakota farm country is so flat that you can see for hundreds of miles in every direction. When the harvest moons of autumn appear, they are taller than any grain silo; deeper orange than any pumpkin ever seen.

When winter comes and the snow blankets the grain fields for what feels like an eternity, the landscape looks like the moon. Flat and white with craters. You can see Frank McDaniel’s footprints in the snow, going from the house to the barn to milk the cows, coming back. They say that Neil Armstrong‘s footprints on the moon will be there forever, since there are no windstorms to cover them.

Not so in North Dakota. On the morning that Melba was born, the blizzard covered every footprint, every tire track, every hoofprint, and threatened to cover the farm structures, too.

When the storm subsided, Josie pulled herself out of her bed and looked out the small bedroom window. She swore it looked like that fluffy white Seven Minute Frosting that she made for birthday cakes whenever there was enough money for sugar. There were always plenty of egg whites, since they raised their own chickens, but sugar was a luxury.

“Oh, good, you’re up!” Zella Erickson said cheerfully. Zella was Josie’s oldest daughter, already married, but who had come back home to act as midwife for the birth of her last baby sister.

“We were worried about you, Mom,” Zella said. “Giving birth after 40 is harder than when you’re younger, isn’t it?”

Nobody knew much about Post Partum Depression back then. But everybody, including little baby Melba, would later learn that when Sarah Josephine McDaniel first held her last baby in her arms, she burst into tears. She cried because this little baby girl was “so homely that nobody could ever love her.”

Zella took her baby sister home and kept her until their mother could get past that dark depression and properly welcome the newborn into her home.

Little Melba soon joined the family. She was a cheerful and optimistic child, and always felt loved, though never particularly pretty. Her family teased her that she was spoiled, since she was The Baby. Her dad doted on her and her big brothers and sisters adored her. Her Mom also loved her, though probably didn’t enter her in any Cute Baby Contests.

Melba had the ability to make any situation fun.

She came home from kindergarten one day to find that her family had slaughtered several chickens.

The five-year-old Melba ran into the chicken yard to see what was going on. She was wearing her school clothes, the plaid skirt that had been worn by her three older sisters, then carefully repaired and handed down to The Baby.

She wanted to see what was happening.

And then she found the pile of headless chickens, laid out in the yard as they waited their turn to be immersed in the big black pot by her oldest brother. Each chicken was scalded for a few minutes in the hot water, which made the plucking of their sleek white feathers so much easier.

Melba had helped to feed these chickens, and had named several of them. It was a practice that her father discouraged. He would gently remind little Melba that these chickens were going to become eventual Sunday dinners.

Melba ran, squealing, toward the chickens. Her father feared that she would be saddened by their deaths.

But no! She realized that this was a perfect opportunity for a party!

There was a chopping block in the middle of the chicken yard, a square piece of wood just the right height for a tea table. Melba carefully avoided the piles of chicken poop-- after all, she was in her only pair of school shoes--as she placed three of the headless chickens around the block. She ran in the house and got four cups and saucers and arranged them on the chopping block. And there she presided over her makeshift tea party, pouring water out of a dented tin scoop for the tea. The family was really too poor to have money for such frivolities as dolls, so Melba’s temporary dolls were these chickens.

Years later, it would embarrass her when I told the story of her tea party with the chickens.

“Oh, you make it sound like we were so poor when you tell that!” my Mama Melba said.

“We weren’t poor-- or if we were, we didn’t know we were poor. Everybody was in the same boat as we were!”

When little Melba was in her 70’s, we went to a midnight buffet on a cruise ship. It was an opulent, bourgeoisie salute to excess and over-the-top food preparation. And of course it was spectacular.

In addition to the ice punchbowls, carved to look like leaping dolphins, and the watermelons into whose rinds had been carved the uncanny likeness of Albert Einstein’s face, there was a string quarter made entirely of headless, rotisserie chickens. The brown chicken carcasses each held a miniature musical instrument, and were suspended above the buffet table. My favorite was the carcass with the cello.

“Oh for heavens sake!” Melba said when she first saw the orchestra.

“We have got to photograph this!” I said. She was reluctant, but I finally talked her into it.

The finished photograph shows a pretty, 70-something woman in a stunning evening gown, smiling and waving one hand at the chicken orchestra. She was finally reunited with her kindergarten party mates, nearly three-quarters of a century later.

The broad, mocking smile on her face seemed to say,

“See? I told you that headless chickens could be fun at a party!”

Saturday, June 23, 2012

MamaMelba and My Friend Lynn

Lynn dropped by the house in Bellingham two days ago to tell me some news.  "I came by a couple of days ago but didn't realize you had gone back to college. Congratulations!" she said.

Lynn and I had worked in the Alaska Oilfields at the same time, knew some of the same people. She was an engineer, an environmental scientist. I was in arctic retailing, doing a little writing on the side We ended up living two doors down from each other in Bellingham, two blocks from my Western alma mater.

I knew her when she married her husband Jim. Lynn and Jim would come over to our deck when Joe and I were "on R-n-R" (Lynn had left the North Slope for an environmental job in Washington state). We would watch the sun set over Bellingham Bay, drink wine and eat the Brie cheese and crackers that Lynn and Jim would bring. We talked of life, love, music, old times in Prudhoe Bay, what was happening in Bellingham. Lynn and Jim told us they were trying to start a family and we were all
thrilled  when their twins Bennett and Arianna were born, seven years ago.

My mother Melba lived in Lake Stevens. She was widowed a second time when my stepfather Glenn died in the year 2000. She was a fun-loving and healthy youngster of 76 that year, and suddenly able to come visit her daughters a lot more than she had before.

When the unthinkable happened on Sept. 11, 2001, Joe and I were fortunately on "R-n-R" from Prudhoe Bay. Melba jumped in her car and drove up, and we started playing Scrabble as if there were no tomorrow. We played on the deck overlooking Bellingham Bay when weather permitted; or in the house when the rains of Bellingham fell.

And dear Lynn joined in with us, playing as often as her schedule permitted.

 Melba had an uncanny knack for winning, though she was timid about her spelling, humble about her vocabulary, and often reminded us that she barely passed second grade out here in Washington after her family moved out from North Dakota during the Dust Bowl of the the 1920's.

Hmmmm. The lady who passed second grade "on condition" versus the engineer and the writer, meeting on a playing field of words. And who won more often than not. Her secret was that she was strategic. She never met a triple word square that she didn't try to reach; would never squander a J or an X on a regular square if she could play it on a double or triple. She would hoard any U that she got just in case she got stuck with the pesky Q. Her Scrabble dictionary was so old that it did not contain the Scrabble players' new best friend, the word QI (meaning CHI TEA).

And then there was her technique that we called "pulling a Melba", which was to write a very simple short word next to another simple short word, resulting in the formation of three even shorter words, and racking up points as if she were a Rhodes Scholar.

One time Lynn got stuck at the end of the game with the entire word QUEEN on her tray of letters.
The best of luck to have such a word! became the worst of luck when all those points counted against her--the Q alone is worth 10! Melba clucked her tongue in sympathy, yet managed to win that one because of Lynn's penalty for not being able to play the QUEEN.

And so we played, and so we visited,  any time it was possible that Melba could come while we were on R-n-R and Lynn's scedule permitted.

Lynn often spoke of her mother who lived in Oregon, and how it would be great to get her Mom involved with Scrabble, because after all, isn't it so healthy for the aging mind to challenge it with word games? When the reality was, we just really liked playing it. We played while we drank tea. Sometimes we would drink wine, Melba gamely allowing us to fill "her glass", which was a tiny, crystal, one-ounce cordial glass, with the wine; many times she didn't even finish the ounce, but just wanted to toast with us.

Lynn and Jim and the twins would visit Lynn's mother in Oregon several times a year, wanting to let her know Bennett and Arianna and also just letting her know how much she was loved.

Lynn and I were both so blessed to have mothers who lived so long, but with so much health and zest. Melba was 88 when she passed away this last March. Lynn had wanted to come and play one last Scrabble when Melba was starting on her gradual slide, her sentimental journey home, in Lake Stevens, but it was not to be. Lynn came to Melba's memorial.

And then, two days ago, the news that Lynn brought me was the saddest: her mama had passed from this earth. Lynn and family had just been there a very short time ago. Lynn's daughter Arianna burst into tears at the news; Bennett tried not to let his sadness show at the time.

When Lynn told me of her Great Sadness, she, like  me,  enumerated all the blessings: thanks heavens we saw her a lot. That she wasn't in pain.That she lived into her 90's.  That her grandchildren got to know her. Just like I did when speaking of my mama. We had great mamas and there were  many blessings, even more magnified at the end.

Which may be why the pain of losing these grand ladies is surprisingly greater than Lynn or I ever thought it would be. We know they had good lives, were well loved, were happy. It's just that we miss them so much that we can burst into tears at the drop of a memory. We have no regrets, no unfinished business. Although one last Scrabble game would've been marvelous. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Until I moved to Alaska's Arctic, I thought all those eight-sided snowflakes that we cut out with those rounded scissors in first grade were fiction.

"No two snowflakes are alike," the preacher intoned, when I was in second grade. His point, I supposed, was that God created us all in such a special way that we were unique, lovely, that there was nobody else like us.

The trouble was, though, that the snowflakes that fell all-too-infrequently over my Western Washington childhood home WERE alike. Identical. They all looked like little balls of white ice. Were their inherent differences microscopic? Was it a myth? I just didn't get it.

Also, the snow didn't fall often enough. A hopeful  child could get a Flexible Flyer sled from Santa on her seventh Christmas, and not have a chance to use it until she was nine years old. Which would explain the incident at Aunt Opal's where Cousins Jeannie and Cindy and myself rode the sled down their inside stair steps, resulting in a need for wood refinishing.

Snow was a disappointment.

Until. One day when I was 29 years old, working in the Alaska oilfields, the season changed from Autumn to Winter in one day. Really, more like one hour. I would later learn that this was typical. The blue sky morning had quickly turned to black clouds by 11 a.m. And then, snow began to fall. But not the wet, slushy, iceball snow of my childhood, but the large, eight-sided snowflakes of First Grade Myth. Each snowflake was an octogonal geometric work of art and guess what? No two were alike!

I was wearing a black nylon parka, perfect for collecting and observing this phenomenon. I was a giddy child, catching these works of art on my tongue, thrilling to observing them on  my parka sleeves. Each one truly unique, eight-sided, individual. WOW. Who knew?

I would later learn that people who live in the American snowbelt have many different descriptions for types of snow. Here in the arctic desert of Alaska, snowflakes are most often the beautiful, awesome, First Grade Prototype of snow.

Just as the French have 37 different words for LOVE, the Inupiat (Eskimos) have 12 different words for COLD. When it is so cold that your nose hairs will freeze before you even realized you HAVE nosehairs, the expression is ALAPA. If an Eskimo says ALAPA to you, keep your survival gear near; they really know what they're talking about.

But if you get a chance to experience snowfall in the arctic, do NOT rush indoors. Stay outside for a moment; capture the snowflakes, enjoy and marvel at them, hold them on your sleeve until they melt away, their brief existence proving to you that YES, there are no two alike and also: your pastor and Kermit the Frog are right: There IS nobody like you!