Thursday, July 26, 2012

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.







  1. What a great final! A+! So glad you are recording these memories :) Leanne

  2. Deadhorse Deb!
    This is fantastic -- so intriguing. It struck me that what you're writing about is the last "true" west, as in America's biggest myth (Manifest Destiny), panning for gold replaced by the black stuff. I love what you write here: "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."

    I know people would dig this (pun intended) should you ever get this into book form. I know I would (because I do now)!

    Keep it coming...


  3. I started to read this when I had about five minutes this morning. After realizing how long it is and how much I was enjoying it, I set it aside until I had time to devour it tonight. My main thought was of how much I enjoy and appreciate the life of my cousin, Deadhorse Deb, and how much of her life i missed between high school and our middle fifties. You're going to have a big hit on your hands cuz. Thanks for sharing your life with us.

    See you soon,


  4. Deb, even though I missed the early days of Prudhoe Bay, I can so relate to everything you say. You definitely have a way with words and I look forward to reading everything you write. Can't wait for your book to be published.
    Inge Fullerton
    formerly BP External Affairs

  5. Deb, I don't know you but I saw this link on Facebook. I worked many years with Inge Fullerton at Sohio's camp at Prudhoe Bay. Reading this brought back such a flood of memories. Thank you!!
    Patti Kearney
    formerly BP Prudhoe Bay Field Manager Secretary