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!