Senior Voice -

Many responses to pipeline construction story

 


When Senior Voice ran a feature article in the June issue about my wife Wilma’s book, it brought us a gratifying response from a wide variety of Alaskan seniors. The article, by Dianne Barske, really made the connection between the book, “Four Years Below Zero,” and its intended audience.

The article described Wilma’s experiences patrolling 12 hours a night, seven nights a week, on the Arctic section of the huge Trans-Alaska Pipeline construction project in the 1970s. It also told how Wilma was unable to complete her manuscript because of illness and that, after her death, two long-time friends helped me complete her story and get it published.

In the article, we offered to send a complimentary copy of the book to anyone who had also worked on the construction job. In response, we got a large number of letters and e-mails from both men and women who had taken part in the big wilderness construction job. The replies came from all over the state and described the individuals’ experiences—often in detail—of working under difficult conditions and in all kinds of weather. But despite the difficulties, several volunteered that their days on the line were probably the most exciting and rewarding of their entire working careers.

The men and women who wrote us had addresses all across the state. There were several from the Anchorage area but there were also replies from Valdez, Wasilla, Skagway, Fairbanks, Kodiak, Palmer, Delta and even Eagle. There were three from Washington state, one from Arizona and one from North Carolina.

Pipeline veterans who wrote held a wide variety of jobs on the line. They ranged all the way from clerk-typist to Arco executive and included an air crew member, bus driver, welder, culinary worker, heavy-duty mechanic and a warehouse worker. Together, these folks had worked at just about all the locations along the 800 miles from the Valdez terminal to the wellheads at Prudhoe.

We were particularly interested in the letters from women workers who, along with Wilma, had been among the more than 1,000 women who secured jobs on the project. They had become a part of history as the very first women to be allowed to work on such an immense construction project. Also of great interest were those who actually had jobs that took them to the various camps in the Arctic.

A letter from Linda in Anchorage fell in that category. She had worked for Wien Air Alaska, which was the first commercial air carrier to fly the workers to and from the wilderness pipeline camps in the Arctic. As an air crew member, she made regular flights from Fairbanks to Prudhoe and all the pipeline camps along the way, including 5-Mile, Coldfoot, Prospect, Dietrich, Happy Valley and Galbraith.

Kathleen was another young pipeline worker in the Arctic. She took a job with Bechtel in early 1976 because, as she wrote:

“Being young and single, I was looking for enough money to complete my college degree.”

But she said that, along with Wilma and many other women, she didn’t want an office/secretarial position. Bechtel hired her as a Field Records Coordinator, which she described as “low man on the totem pole” working with a weld inspector. Wanting a job working outside, she eagerly accepted, but “I never in a million years would have thought that would mean I would be walking through a 48-inch pipe looking at welds. So, yes I was outdoors, but inside the pipe was a place many people did not want to be …”

Her position presented some of the problems faced by every woman on the job along with ones face by inspectors:

“Being on the inspection side … was not always a popular place to be: every welder thought his welds were the best and didn’t like to be written up. Although I did get many ‘Hey, wanna get married Inspector Girl?’ offers, it was not always easy or fun...”

Kathleen’s work took her to a lot of the Arctic camps, but the Dietrich area impressed her the most and, despite the fact that “finding a husband was not on my list of things to do,” Dietrich was where she met the man she would marry after she left the job. They would name their first child Dietrich because, as Kathleen wrote, “It was the most beautiful place in the Brooks Range.”

Since Kathleen wasn’t a welder, she didn’t make the Big Bucks, but you could say she did even better. She saved enough money to finish college debt-free, and she met a man to share her future. You could tell from her letter that, like many of the women who worked in the Arctic, she looked back fondly on her pipeline days.

For information about the book “Four Years Below Zero,” or to contact Robert Knox, email him at fouryearsbelowzero@yahoo.com, or write to Robert Knox, PO Box 1638, Deming, NM 88031.

 
 

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