Monday, February 4, 2013

Sittin' On Top of the World

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

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

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

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


  1. Deb-
    I was so elated to find some recognition for the great John C. Miller.
    I first remember him from the late 50's early 60's when he and Boyd Brown were working the gravel pit near our home in Anchorage, Alaska. He came to our home one day {I was very young but can remember well} with A trailered mule and asked my father permission to graze him on our property. it was fine with my father.
    I later went to work for him in the late 70's early 80's when I hired on with Pioneer Oilfield services.
    John C. Miller is A legend in Alaska and A lithograph with his photo superimposed over the pipeline road with the old cat train can still be found on the walls of many camps at Greater Prudhoe Bay. He was one resilient man.
    I can remember having coffee with him at the pioneer camp on H-pad at Kuparuk. He always had A Lucky Strike cigarette to offer me at coffee break. What A prolific character...From rags to riches more times than I can count...Those were the days...
    Stuart Sneed-lifelong Alaskan-Born in the territorial capital, Juneau,on Alaska Day...

  2. It is so awesome to read this from you! Yes, John C. Miller was great, and barely recognized in print....until now. Would love to keep in touch with you and please know how much your comment meant to me!

    Cheers and blessings,

    Debbie Bernard