I grew up in Alaska when the state was still unspoiled, still a real last frontier. And I remember setting my first goals at a very early age. That age being the glorious day I could finally leave home.
I‘ll bypass the details, because they’re not pretty and something I would rather forget anyway. Suffice it to say, leaving home for me was akin to being released from Alcatraz for a crime I did not do. It was a day I looked forward to as far back as I could remember.
While growing up, there was never a thought of us kids going to college, rather we’d hear, “I want you out as bad as you want out, so you’d better figure out how to get out of here.” That could not happen soon enough for me. I used to pray someone would notice the abuse and save us, but it never happened. I had a stepbrother who used to run away all the time, but when he was found it got really ugly, so that was not an option either. I made it out alive, barely. I got myself into the University of Alaska in Fairbanks as “my escape.” Room and board, and a little education, yippee!
At last I was free, swearing never to return to that place called “home.” I could breath now.
Everything went exceptionally well in college until about mid way through the year when it struck me, Hey, where will I go this summer? I can’t go back home! I remember panicking and losing my breath.
It turned out my summer living situation wasn’t really all that critical because the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was just starting up, and the State of Alaska as we all knew her would never again be the same. We went from the poorest state in the union to probably the richest in what seemed like over night.
So I did what many other college kids were doing, I went to the union halls in downtown Fairbanks. Naturally, being female, I went to the only place I thought women could get a dispatch and that was the Culinary Union. The Culinary Union workers worked in the camps doing cooking, cleaning, laundry and things like that.
There were probably several thousand names on the A and B lists and probably tens of thousands on the “C” list. Those of us on the C list had never worked for the union before.
The rest of the school year passed by, and I thought, I’m set. I’m not going home as planned, ever.
About March or so, I went to the Culinary Union hall as usual to pay my dues so I would keep moving up the C list. My name was getting close to the top! To my utter shock, I was told I was late in paying and that my name had been moved to the bottom of the list.
I was speechless and felt hopeless as I staggered outside. I could not breath.
As I left, I walked right past another union hall. It was a very small one. My memory tells me it was about a 10×10 shack, and there was a long line of men waiting outside. I watched them shuffle up to the window, stand there for a minute talking to the person behind the window, then leave with their heads down. It was the Operating Engineers Local 302.
Without a second thought, I just got in line, went to the window, and said I wanted to sign up on the C list. I’m sure they were shocked by my appearance and statement, but I didn’t notice. I just signed the paperwork, paid the money, and went back to campus, feeling hopeful again.
I knew there were far fewer people in this union and my chances had to be much greater getting a job with these people. Besides, many of my guy friends had been getting jobs through this union as service oilers.
As school was drawing quickly to a close, many of my fellow classmates (guys) were getting dispatches out to the pipeline. Most of them had no experience in this type of work, but they were securing jobs right and left.
I had a good friend whose dad was a “Big Boss” up on the slope and my friend had already worked there during the summers. He groomed me on what I would need to do if I got a job through this union. I would have to start as an oiler. Fine, I didn’t care, I’d do whatever I needed to. The why was bigger than the how.
When school was out I started to worry. But, a dear friend of my brother’s, who had just died the year before, took care of me by paying for room and board so I could stay at the college until I got a job. I’ve never forgotten him for doing this for me.
Every day I walked to the union hall from campus to make the call times (when they give out dispatches). The union hall was about a half to three-quarter hour walk from campus and I did it twice a day, five days a week. Always hopeful. I’d walk up to the window, give them my number and hope they would say, Yes, you have a job. They always said “no” before even reading my number.
After about a month of this, my friend’s dad took pity on me and requested I be sent out to his crew. I don’t know for a fact, but from what I was told, if someone is requested to be sent out, the union is supposed to send that person out. They refused his request.
Finally, after about 30 days of this walk of shame, I went to the window and the union steward said to me, “Come back at 1:00 and we’ll talk.”
I was excited. I was walking on air when I left the hall that day. I thought this meant I was going to get a dispatch! Far from it as it turned out.
When I met with the union steward at 1:00 there was no one else there. He said to me, “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?”
“Trying to get a job,” I stammered.
“You don’t have any experience, you have no idea what to do.”
I replied, “Many of my friends who had no union work experience got dispatches through this union, why can’t I?”
He was flustered and said, “Did you notice there are only men here in line? The only women who get jobs out of this union are daughters of union workers.”
Then he said, “Do you realize you will have to sleep with your bosses?”
I was shocked.
I am not, nor have I ever been a “women’s libber,” but I was shocked.
I remember that walk home to the campus. I went from crying to mad, mad, mad. I did not want any preferential treatment, I just wanted a chance.
Fortunately, I had taken some legal classes at the college, so I called one of my professors and told him what had happened.
He told me to go to the Human Rights Commission and file a claim against the union.
Okay! That’s what I did! I filed a claim with them and they in turn sent the complaint to the union.
Within a week Operating Engineers Local 302 begrudgingly gave me a dispatch! I could breath again and I was on cloud nine, but a little scared not knowing where I was going or what I was to do.
I was sent to a camp close to Fairbanks called “Livengood.” The camps were really small cities or towns constructed of trailers all connected to one another with boardwalks.
“Live-in good in Livengood,” was the saying. It was about a four hour drive up the haul road from Fairbanks and close to the Yukon River.
The camp was nice and the stories you’ve probably heard are pretty much true. The food was off the charts—filet mignon, lobster, napoleon’s, croissants, French pastries, ice creams, any drink you could think of. Box lunches were reported to have over 800 calories in them.
Brand new equipment was sitting unused everywhere. It was rumored they used to order light plants (light generators) and then just crush them for the money (cost plus). There appeared to be prolific waste everywhere you looked.
Luckily, I did not know I was a girl. Growing up if we didn’t kill it or grow it we didn’t eat. I never owned a dress until someone gave me one at 16, so I was just one of the guys in my mind.
Apparently the guys didn’t see me that way… I can remember my first week. I was working on a drilling rig and all these buses would drive by, one after the other after the other. I could not figure out why so many buses were going this way. Then someone said, “Hey, there is a girl working out here.” They wanted to see me. Okay, now I get it. I was naive.
When I first arrived in the camp, Livengood had 6 women and 600 men. I was the only female who went out of the camp and worked on the line at the time.
They put me on a big nasty drilling rig. The drilling rig drilled holes for the VSMs (vertical support members) to hold the members that held up the cradle, which supported the pipeline. It was a dirty job. I drove the rig, changed the augers and the bits, oiling and greasing her and making sure the holes were vertical every time the auger came out of the ground. It would spin off the dirt and mud (all over me), and I would have to level it before it went back down. I got really dirty, and when it rained it was an absolute a mess.
I was happy though. We worked seven days a week and 10-16 hours a day, depending on the season and how far we had to drive to the work area. There was nothing to do but work and the pay was good for back then, around $14 an hour. We really made the money on overtime, getting paid time and a half for working over 8 hours a day and on weekends. Sometimes we got double time and even triple time on occasion.
I kept my mouth shut and my head down. When I was off work, I spent most of my time washing my work clothes, so I wouldn’t smell like diesel the next day.
The other trades were nice to me, but the operating engineers working on the line hated me at first. They said I was “taking food out of their kids mouths.” Eventually the men in my trade saw I just did my job, never asked a man to do my job for me, and—oh by the way—the rig was black when they put me on it, within a week it was Caterpillar yellow and you could eat off of it.
The operators in the field saw I was doing what I was expected to do and offered to train me to operate the heavy equipment. I had finally earned their respect. They taught me to run everything from man lifts to side booms. I started operating man lifts and small cranes on the job. For fun I also ran dozers and side booms, but not in the work setting.
I never had a problem with the guys bothering me. I always say, “If you put it out there, you get it back, if you don’t put it out there, you don’t get it back.” I did not put it out there.
The camp life was interesting. Of course we had all the trades, the laborers, the teamsters, and operating engineers living and working together. And then there were the “good ole’ boys,” the 798ers.
They were a rough and tumble group of professional pipefitters who traveled all over the world putting in pipelines, and were mostly from the south. They ran all over the other unions and wrote the rules. They actually tore the places up many times during my time up there and earned their reputation. If the table was set funny in the cafeteria they could come in and turn over the tables. I saw many awful fights and heard heads get hit with baseball bats more than once. But they treated me very well and took me under their wing, so I was grateful.
Yes, there was prolific gambling, drugs, alcohol (it was supposed to be a dry camp ~Ha), and there was prostitution.
One clever entrepreneur came up with a stroke of genius. Since Livengood was close to Fairbanks, he would bring a busload of “ladies” up to the camp and they made their own fortunes from the oil rush. They stayed a week or two and probably moved onto the next camp I supposed. The funny part was two weeks later; the boardwalks connecting all the trailers to one another were backed up for what seemed like blocks with guys waiting at the medical shack for their “shots.” I would snicker as I walked by.
I saw three kinds of men up there. Those needing to bail themselves and family out—looking for a break and a better life, those who didn’t want to be home at all, and the professionals that just worked pipelines as a living, making it their lifestyle (the 798ers).
I saw so many poor fools send their checks home for months, then go home to no money and no wife… It was sad.
By the second year, most guys would not send their checks home at all. They just held onto them in their rooms, gambled the entire check away, or … I’ll get to what else in a minute.
We would stay in one camp until the work moved north, and then move on. I worked the northern section of the line, about a 400 mile stretch from Livengood to Prudhoe Bay on the Beaufort Sea. There were so many jobs, if you didn’t like the cafeteria or your boss, or your assignment, you could just quit, go back to Fairbanks, and get another dispatch to another camp.
I kept the same dispatch for two years until the work was finished for my company, HC Price. We were laid off for several months in the winter when it was too cold to work, when even with the equipment running 24/7, the diesel would freeze. So off I would go to Hawaii and collect unemployment for a few months, then come back to work for HC Price in late February or March.
We paid the union hall handsomely with our union dues (I think it was $2.50 an hour). When I went back to Fairbanks after being laid off from HC Price, the hall had gone from a 10×10 shack to what I called the Taj Mahal building—paid for by us.
In the second year of the pipeline, up came the ladies. They all wanted equal rights and equal pay. I was the only woman out in the field running equipment. They wanted to run equipment too and I can’t tell you how much equipment was destroyed. They demanded their own bathrooms in the camp trailers and porta potties on the job. A porta potty required: 1) a sled to put it on, 2) a laborer to hook and unhook the sled, 3) a cat and an operator to pull the cat 4) an oiler to oil and grease the cat. All this so that “ladies” could have their bathrooms out on the line. I used the same bathroom and shower stalls as the men in the camps and peed in the woods on the job. It was good enough for me. I wanted to work; I did what I had to do. I know this will not be popular with some women today, but that’s how it was.
The highlight of my experience with the union was one day when we were on strike. There was an agreement there were to be no strikes, but for some reason, there was a strike and the operating engineers were not supposed to work.
The 798 boss asked me to run a crane, which of course I was delighted to do. The operating engineers union steward showed up on the job a few days later when I was operating, and knocked on the door of my crane. He was red faced and yelled at me, “What do you think you’re doing operating this crane? You are an oiler and we are on strike. Get out of this crane now!”
I calmly looked at him, smiled, said, “‘F’ you,” shut the door in his face, and continued to operate. I think he about had a heart attack. I would have loved to be a fly on his wall that night!
The union would never move my card up to operator status, even though I had the experience and the hours operating to qualify. They hated me, and vehemently refused giving me more pay and benefits.
It was the best of times.
R&R was always fun. We had great times playing on the Yukon River after work on an airboat, and trading with the local Native Alaskans for some of their fish as it was drying on their fish racks and giving them yogurt and things they probably never saw or ate. We gold panned as we worked and, yes, we found a lot of gold.
They would make us leave every two months for two weeks. You really could not physiologically take it much longer than that. The work and lifestyle messed with your mind after a while. We thought we were rich, so we’d just go off wherever we wanted to go since we had all the money we ever needed in life, or so we thought.
There is a saying all Alaskans have undoubtedly heard. “Dear God, let there be another pipeline, and I promise not to piss it all away again.” A lot of truth in that. Only now we are too old for the next one!
Virtually all of my lady roommates (during years two and three) on the pipeline spent all their money on cocaine. You could lift up pretty much any bed skirt in any room and find cocaine on mirrors. The US mail was no longer the US mail once it hit Fairbanks (to distribute to the pipeline), so some of the drugs they paid for got recycled once they hit the pipeline mailroom. Many people lost a lot of themselves up there.
Remember those paychecks those guys saved? During the second and third year, some of the women would sleep with a guy for an entire paycheck. They would just sign it over. It was a piece of paper.
They would say to me, “I can’t believe you don’t do this.” There was always something in me that said, “This pipeline will be over some day and you will remember what you did.” I never spent a penny on drugs or ever did them. It was by God’s grace only. After my rough childhood (a book in itself) I had every reason to do those things, but I chose not to.
As mentioned, the union hall was the size of the Taj Mahal now (thanks to our union dues), and I found myself walking in there, now year three, looking to get my second dispatch.
They ignored me day after day. I’d go to the window and no job, no job, no job. I sat in the lobby all day and watched as people tromped in and out with their dispatches.
Finally, about the 4th or 5th day, I wrote a little note and slipped it to the guy at the window. It read something like:
“This time I will follow through with the suit against you and I will not drop it. That’s a promise not a threat.”
I had a dispatch the next day.
They sent me to the worst camp out there. By now the pipeline was winding down and the money that flowed like milk and honey was drying up. It was a cost plus job, meaning the more they spent, the more they would make, and as I mentioned the waste was prolific. The trucks just stayed where they died. They were duct taping things together. The camps were beat.
This particular camp was called Franklin Bluffs just south of Prudhoe Bay. I’m not sure if it was ever a nice camp and it was far from it when they sent me. The camp boss up there was hated and feared by everyone. I won’t mention names. It was reported he was a monster, and it was rumored people had actually tried to kill him when he was sleeping. Their diabolical plan was to send me there so I would be miserable.
As it turned out, I loved the job and loved the boss. He let me work in the heavy equipment shop. I was supposed to be a dispatcher. I learned how to change out engines, order parts and work on heavy equipment as well. It was a great job and I didn’t have to be outside much. Thank God, Franklin Bluffs is about the coldest place on the planet!
We used to drive up to Prudhoe Bay after work because Prudhoe Bay was like a four star hotel. It was what we called a “resort” and the food was outrageous (like it was in the early pipeline days). I understand a worker could not even eat there unless he was clean and dressed appropriately. While there, we would load up on ice cream. It was like being in heaven, our very own Baskin and Robbins on the North Slope. One time someone from our camp stole their popcorn machine, but we had to return it when they put out a reward for it.
When that job wound down, I came to the realization that it was time for me to go back to school, and besides, I was rich. I had enough money to last me a lifetime. Yes, I was still young and naive.
I did have a few friends who managed their money well and to this day live a very nice life thanks to wise counsel and wise financial decisions. I don’t blame anyone, but I had no mentorship or any family whatsoever, so I had no idea how to live or invest.
Do I have it in me to work another pipeline? I doubt my husband would like that, and I doubt the union would take me in again (let’s face it, I’m probably too old anyway). I am left with the greatest memories and a great story I will remember and tell for the rest of my life. It’s been almost 40 years since my pipeline days, and yet it all seems like just yesterday.
Leonora Prince has lived on the Big Island of Hawaii for the past 15 years and owns her own real estate brokerage company, Big Island Real Estate Company. She treasures meeting and working with Alaskans helping them find a home on the Big Island. There is nothing like Alaska. You can take the girl out of Alaska but can’t take Alaska out of the girl.
She can be reached at email@example.com or (808)987-4699
She has been married to her soul mate for 30 years and has a house full of pets including two 150lb+ Great Danes.