I found my first year-round job at the age of 45.
Birthday boy was broke, living in a downtown Oakland, California, apartment, and 23 days from eviction. Normally, this would not be a problem, as I was the owner of a tricked-out 1972 VW van. Add warm weather and I’m fine. However, on this occasion, I foresaw a glitch moving into permanent jamboree lifestyle.
I was sleeping 16 hours a day, and, when awake, too dizzy to stand upright. In fact, it required supreme effort to complete the daily task of lurching down one flight of stairs, stumble-trip out the front door and across the street to the neighborhood hole-in-the-wall market. The Lin Hang Market catered to on-the-go professionals whose tastes ran to Swanson’s pot pies, off-brand one-ply toilet tissue, Wonder Bread, and Night Train Express. I’d grab a soggy egg sandwich out of the cooler, collect a stack of frozen dinners, order up four packs of Winstons, two six-packs of Budweiser, and return home. The adventure required three hours of bed rest.
I’d been ejected from the mobility ball game five months earlier. If you’ll pan the camera to the right and zoom in, you’ll see me standing on the back of a flatbed truck with six other partygoers. Craig, a cocaine-addled Teamster, was wheelman. We were making our way down the spit at Point Barrow, Alaska, to a beach party. It was mid-July, and we were enjoying a heat wave, the ambient temperature topping out at a sweltering 65 degrees above zero. The Arctic ice pack had retreated to a position a quarter-mile offshore, which left — here’s the point — a stretch of open seawater; naked, muddy, gray, but indisputably liquid, available to the public for frolic and amusement.
Craig, for a reason never revealed, stomped on the brakes, which caused my abrupt departure from the truck bed, flying in a low arc some 15 feet before making touchdown on the gravel roadway. I landed on my forehead, more precisely, on a spot two inches above my left orb.
I have a tenuous memory of the Barrow Hospital emergency room. I was examined by a young Pakistani doctor/intern/washroom attendant. I remember thinking, If he’s in Barrow, he’s a fuckup.
The fuckup executed a perfunctory examination and sent me on my way. I staggered out the hospital’s front doors, wobbly, unable to focus my eyes, and before you could say, “Long live proletarian internationalism,” fell down 11 steel-grated steps, landing, again, exactly, on the now-indented left brow.
Over and out. It would be three years before I’d be capable of a leg-stretching stroll around one city block.
The assassination attempt occurred while I was working at Point Barrow Station. Said outpost is an important — nay, critical appendage of the DEW Line (for civilians, that’s Distant Early Warning Line). Built in the mid-’50s, the Line consists of a string of 58 radar stations running from Cape Lisburne, on the northwest coast of Alaska, to the eastern shore of Baffin Island, which is, for the geographically impaired, across the street from Greenland. The idea was to catch sight of a sneaky, over-the-North-Pole-Ruskie-bomber attack at its start. That way, we would have time to launch 12,000 nuclear bombs and fry every Red commie cocksucker in Commieland.
Point Barrow Station had super-trained radar specialists and super-secret gear, secret rooms, secret gewgaws, and secret handshakes. Still, everybody has to eat, and somebody has to cook. Everybody has to sleep, and somebody has to change the bed sheets. Somebody has to keep the heaters running, shovel the snow, fix the plumbing, replace broken windows, order and warehouse supplies. In short, somebody has to do the bullshit.
It was damn fortunate for the United States of America that qualified union hands were on the job! Oh, let us sing of Culinary Workers Local 878, Operating Engineers Local 302, Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 375, Teamsters Local 959, Iron Workers Local 751, and Laborers Local 942!
We are the Union
The mighty, mighty union!
Everywhere we go
People want to know
Who we are
So we tell them
We are the union, the mighty, mighty union!
Dear reader, union men and women slaved in the Arctic outback just to keep your ungrateful ass alive, and did it for a lousy $1800-a-week in 1980s’ dollars, plus free room and board and every blue-chip union benefit ever inserted into any contract at any time, anywhere.
I was in Barrow by way of Laborers Local 942 of Fairbanks, Alaska, having squealed loudest when the position was announced at the dispatch window, and, more to the point, because I knew a big job needed a top hand. I should note for the record that this dispatch was taken after my illegal and outrageous banishment from Prudhoe Bay had expired. I’d been exiled from that employment hot spot after an unfortunate incident concerning the theft of a company truck.
Actually, I had merely borrowed the vehicle. At the time, I was employed at Franklin Bluffs, a construction camp found 32 miles south of Prudhoe Bay. After the work day is done, dozens of pickup trucks are parked with their engines left idling. In winter, engines are never turned off, due to inclement weather. I selected a big red Ford crew cab, the one with the best radio, and drove up the haul road to attend a whiskey-and-cocaine party at ARCO Prime Camp in Prudhoe Bay, subsequently totaling said vehicle on the way home in the midst of an unanticipated whiteout.
Besides the destruction of a brand-new crew cab, a large amount of quality cocaine was lost that night. To top it off, the brutish oil companies then operating in Prudhoe Bay called an employment time-out, making the Prudhoe Bay oil field a vast no-go area for your servant, and alerting my union to the fact that I would not be allowed into their camps or work sites. It took time and a lot of expensive sniveling to get that injustice reversed. However, even though I was free to return to Prudhoe Bay, I decided to take the Barrow call, because, to use a phrase that always means trouble, it seemed like a good idea at the time.