My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Ryan W. Bradley, author of the short-story collection Nothing But the Dead and Dying, the novella Winterswim and the poetry collections The Memory of Planets and Mile Zero. Over the course of his many careers, Ryan has pumped gas, changed oil, painted houses, swept the floor of a mechanic’s shop, worked on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle, fronted a punk band, and managed an independent children’s bookstore. He now works in marketing. His latest book is Nothing But the Dead and Dying, a collection of stories set in Alaska. He lives in southern Oregon with his wife and two sons. Click here to visit his website.
My First Week in the Arctic
May 25, 2006
We land at the smallest airport ever. It’s tiny. A step above a dirt runway and a hut. Deadhorse is what passes for a town in the construction wastelands of the Arctic Circle, aka the Slope. The area is better known for Prudhoe Bay, but names don’t matter. All the buildings are on stilts or made out of Conex containers. All the signs bear the names of companies like BP and Haliburton.
It’s sunny and forty degrees, a big change coming from Portland a week earlier where it was already marching too close to the nineties.
The foyer of the airport is cramped with thirty other guys, all of us waiting for our luggage to be unloaded. Why we’re not just waiting under the belly of the plane for our bags is beyond me. Instead a couple of guys in gray jumpsuits are tossing bags from behind a half-wall onto a battered metal trough.
Fragments from the handbook and week of training play in my head. When going to the Slope employees must have the following: a cold-weather coat, steel-toed boots, gloves, and other cold-weather apparel or you will not be permitted on the plane.
The walls of the airport were white once. The trademark orange-brown of Carhartt gear worn by literally every man in the building contrasts the dingy surroundings. I spot my olive green army-style duffel as it leaves the hands of a baggage handler. Before it even lands I know it is going to burst open, it is just the sort of thing that would happen to me. Sure enough it lands at the bottom of the trough and the top pops open. My clothes and toiletries spill across the linoleum floor. No one pays me any mind as I try to gather my stuff, they just step on my belongings as they grab their own luggage.
Welcome to the Arctic.
May 26, 2006
I exit the bus and follow the crowd into a small trailer—the break shack. They call it a toolbox meeting. A few people are already inside, seated around two plastic tables. I find an empty spot and sit down. There are a dozen men and two women. Everyone is dressed the same. Some wear overalls instead of jeans, some leather steel-toed boots rather than rubber. The men haven’t shaved, representing a gradation of stubble throughout the room. For my part I shaved my head and my goatee before leaving Portland.
The foreman is my brother-in-law and he introduces me and two other new guys to the rest of the crew. Then he starts in on the morning’s safety topic—a daily refresher. We discuss the proper handling and storage of power tools, the importance of checking electrical cords.
All tools must be fully inspected before use.
Before getting in a truck employees must perform 360-degree inspection of the vehicle.
It is not yet muscle memory, but the youthful encyclopedia of the newly trained.
We are divided into teams of two or three and turned loose to tackle various tasks. My brother-in-law takes us newbies for a grand tour of the pump station. We are at Mile Zero of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Pump Station #1.
“We have four thousand feet of trench to dig this summer,” he says. “There’s going to be a lot of dirt work.”
He’s not kidding. As the new guys on the crew, the three of us are stuck with the most trivial work possible, spending our first three days shoveling dirt off the top of snow.
Safety and environmental regulations in the Arctic are some of the strictest in the world and the EPA requires there not be more than an eighth-inch of dirt on top of snow banks on the tundra. But as a storm hits it ends up being a lot of shoveling snow off of snow. We are just outside the back fence of the pump station, the pipeline emerging from the ground just fifty yards away and stretching across the tundra to the horizon. The air is sliced by the whip and crack of the pump station’s vapor flare.
Seventy million dollars worth of oil passes through Pump Station #1 every day.
May 27, 2006
The two other newbies are brothers and a bit younger than me. They punch each other and wave their shovels in the air threatening to bash one another’s heads in, like they live in a cartoon world. They complain about everything. They are freezing. They don’t like shoveling. It’s annoying that I’m not complaining.
I ignore them as best I can, concentrating on my own shovel, and the pile of dirt and snow. The brothers shovel in minute-long spurts, stopping between each and griping about how they want to quit. They are eighteen and twenty and have never had jobs before. One of their uncles is our other foreman, and another uncle and a cousin are also on our crew.
May 28, 2006
On day three of shoveling a fox stalks across the tundra in our direction. It darts up and down through the snow and grass until it is at the base of the snow bank. One of the brothers has gone off to use a port-a-potty, so I point out the fox to the other one and we retreat to the pump station gate, fifty yards away.
If you encounter wildlife report it to security or to your foreman. Do not harass the wildlife.
I leave to track down someone with a radio. When I ask the mechanic for his he makes fun of me for running away from a fox.
“It’s a little early for me to start ignoring my training,” I say.
The mechanic laughs some more and hands me his radio. I call it in and return to the gate. The brothers are wrestling. The fox is standing defiantly atop the snow bank.
Ninety percent of foxes in the Arctic are rabid.
After ten minutes no one has shown up so I grab my shovel and head back toward the snow bank, fox be damned. The brothers whine. The air reeks of fox, sour and furry, and it turns my stomach. I tie a handkerchief around my face.
At lunch the rest of the crew relentlessly prods us for being afraid of a fox. I don’t bother defending myself.
May 29, 2006
After thirty-six hours of shoveling, I’ve managed to suffer a pinched nerve in my right wrist and my hand is numb most of the time. I wake up in the middle of the night from the pins and needles spreading under the skin. By the end of the day I can’t hold a fork at dinner or even a pen.
All injuries must be reported to your foreman.
I don’t say a thing to my foreman, knowing I’ll be sent back to Anchorage for it to heal. I have a plan and it involves working, earning money. I ignore the pain when I can and when no one is watching I hit my hand against my thigh, trying to stimulate blood flow.
Everyone is encouraging me to take time off, to scrap my plan of working three months straight. A loader operator tells me I’m going to get sick of everyone on the crew, or they’ll all get sick of me. Both end up being true by about the ninth week. He tells me if I wasn’t crazy before I got to the Arctic, I will be when I leave. And one of those things was probably true as well.
Postscript: January 5, 2016