22 October 2010

In Pursuit of the Ghost Train of Tsedi-na, Part 4

In Pursuit of the Ghost Train of Tsedi-na, Part 4:
I Return to the Pipeline: late 1975

At some point in early fall of 1975 I obtained my union dispatch (Operators 302) to Pump Station 6 on the Yukon River as a waste water treatment plant operator.  We were going into winter, one that would prove to be a near-record-breaker for cold temperatures. Meanwhile, pipeline and pump station construction was humming along close to the original schedule set by Alyeska.
All of the pump stations were under the prime contractor Fluor. It was said that their camps had better food and better hours. As it turned out, that was true. The camps were smaller and life was not quite so hectic because the pipeliners who were the source of much of the discord along the project were mostly in the pipeline construction camps, such as Franklin Bluffs or nearby Five Mile Camp.

Pump Station 6 during construction, view looking north: (click for larger image)

PS. 6 was built along a hillside. The temporary barracks where I stayed are in the foreground. Like most pump stations, these were two-story units whereas the construction camps were all single-story. Pump stations grounds were very compact. There was not much room to spread out. In the distance you can see part of the Yukon River. P.S. 6 is located on a narrow stretch of river between Stevens Village and Ft. Yukon  to the east and Rampart and then Tanana to the west.

The official pipeline map shows only the pump stations. Pump stations two, six, seven, eight, ten, eleven and twelve are either abandoned or are about to be .  Pump stations one, three, four, five and nine are being updated with modern equipment, including new pumps and turbines. P.S. One is the first one, located right at Prudhoe Bay. Five is just north of the Yukon River and P.S. Nine, the last one, is near Delta Junction north of the Alaska Range. No stations are currently operating south of this point and probably never will be for the remaining life of this system.

  I was only at this camp a short time before I ran into a conflict with a group of Irish nationals who had literally taken over a part of the camp--the union laborers. They were all Irish Republican Army (IRA) at a time when that terrorist outfit was very active in both Northern Ireland and England itself. They were extremely thrifty and  sent most of their wages off to Ireland, more often than not to support the IRA cause.
At the time I did not realize  this group also had a strong political presence within the Alaska local labor union.  Some of these men worked in the same plant as I did. I made the mistake of expressing my displeasure that there were so many Irish nationals and hardly any Natives on jobs where Natives could be working. I doubt if it was to more than one or two people, and there was no argument. But, the next thing I knew, I was forced off the job and sent packing back to Fairbanks.
This was an experience that always stayed with me. Twenty-five years later I wrote my historic novel where I had a chance to get even in a literary sense with these Irish men. The thing about that experience that stung me the most was that this happened right in the very heart of Yukon River country--Athabascan territory. We were within sight of that very river, which to me was like being on sacred ground. I was told that my position would be eliminated and that I would get a reduction-in-force and that was that. I was gone.
I must say, though, that there was another lesson to be learned from my experience there, particularly for us Natives. It was this: the Irish had survived just as the Jewish people had by sticking together no matter what. In the most unlikely of places they popped up and exerted their political force in a way most people would not believe. It was wrong of us Americans to tolerate that, but then, the existence of these Irish nationals (they were most definitely not American citizens) went on almost totally unnoticed--and their close connections with the IRA were not generally understood, but I was told outright what I had encountered so I knew.
I should point out that none of this, whether it involves Texans or Irishmen or any other group is anything more than a discussion of how territorial this project had become. People were divided into groups not based on race so much as country or state of origin or by union association.  There was, for example no real issue among Alaskans as far as Native versus non-Native, but there certainly was when it came to Teamster versus Pipeliner or union versus management. It is really too bad. Alaska went into the pipeline construction project at the end of an extended economic slump that only the pipeline would alleviate. Many Alaskans were either out of work or were working very poorly-paying jobs considering the cost of living in Alaska. But the pipeline construction brought with it a flood of outside labor that wholly overwhelmed our home-grown workforce. Of course, we had very few who could perform the specialized task of pipefitter, but there was never any shortage of laborers or qualified teamsters or operating engineers.  On top of all that, a great deal of tension developed between the pipeliners and everyone else which did nothing to help a very tense situation. It was all territorial and it is not something that those of us who lived it will ever forget.
In any case, that experience had its impact. I would re-create characters much like those Irish laborers and use similar characters along with that highly negative  in my novel.  This occurred  during the period of the CRNW railroad construction as it approached Chitina in 1910.  All of the events I used were historic, even down to the nationality of the laborers who were Irish, but this time I could write a more satisfactory ending.  Maybe that was just meant to be. It all fit with the historic record. But at the time I was unceremoniously removed from camp, believe me, it was not a pleasant experience.

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