Excerpt from "Mackenzie Breakup" . . .
|Home | Back|
|In latitudes replete with population, the sun is disciplined, balanced and considerate. Twice daily throughout the year, it doses out color in seconds of careful computation. The measured amounts of dawn or sunset are batons waving pack after pack of humans into joy. Each pack will stare, gain courage, dream of happiness in red clouds beyond the horizon, and then return to work.|
It's in the sparsely peopled polar regions that the sun lets go. Hour upon hour it lavishes scarlet, orange and plum on the complete dome of the heavens and in the many waters. For three summer months the orb is out on drunken riot and then departs.
No wonder that whoever strays North in June will forget duties, be passion-seized, and go off his or her head! Too much has been measured out, or very little and nothing.
|In the Norman Wells mess hall, Elmer Pepman, Administrative Assistant in the office of the United States Engineering Department, U.S. Armed Forces, tapped a cup with his fork. He was keeping time to music from a loudspeaker attached to a record player. While the croons of good old Bing bounced around the "hotel's" board walls, Elmer tapped and squinted through his glasses at a table of girls. They were a bowl of fruit - colorful, various, some wormy, some under-ripe, with one perfect peach, Queena! There she sat next to the aisle, casting her little glances hither, thither, at all who, having finished their meal, passed by. "If I win at poker, I'll buy Queena a frivolous present," Elmer decided.At last, he was going to give in to the North enough to join just one game of poker. "You've been keeping a tight fist around your pennies long enough," Jen Jenson had said.|
"But where will we play?" Elmer asked. "The new matron has put two Ping-Pong tables in the recreation hall."
"The Ping-Pong tables are in the carpenter shop," Jenson told him. "Several legs had an unfortunate accident."
Just this one night, after Elmer's return from a jaunt across the river and down the pipeline road, he would boldly enter the recreation hall to challenge cards and coins.
The clerk thought of jewels or gold or of an extravagant dress - all that men turn women's heads by. He went crazy for thinking what he would buy his peach. Then, because such things could not be purchased through a mail order catalogue, he decided, "I'll get a fur from the trapper-wife who lives upriver." He wondered if silver fox or red fox would suit Queena best.
When Bing Crosby ceased singing, Elmer finished his scrambled, powdered eggs and then poured coffee into the enamel cup. As he sipped the black brew, he looked about at the change in the mess hall. From a battered container it had become a stately dining room. "Have girls been in camp only one week?" he asked himself. Then he thought, "How dreamlike they are," for the voices of the Ink Spots singing "On a Street of Dreams" now emerged from the loudspeaker.
Following the notes of the delicate tenor, he allowed himself to dream of that future Norman Wells street of his imagination. The Project was now so on the move, it was entirely feasible to picture window shopping under the office windows of the Elmer Pepman Plaza, arm in arm with Queena who did not mind that he was stout.
Alas, when the Ink Spots were through with their song, the geologists on benches near Elmer began gossiping. They said that in the storeroom, Queena, who worked there, could not tell ball bearings from peas in a can. Elmer turned around to tell those men what he thought of them, but their gossip went off on another tack. "What happened?" they asked Theodore Mitchell. "Isn't Queena going down the pipeline road with you?"
The geological student Mitchell just kept on munching his pancakes.
Elmer felt that none of the young geologists were fun like they used to be. They had gone stale from waiting again for planes. One of them, a captain in the American Army, kept throwing a fare-well-into-the-bush party every night on the launch, the Mary T.
"At last the Mary T. Washington DC is put to proper use," Pfc. Ruben cheerfully told Elmer one morning as he deposited a mail bag on Elmer's desk. "You're just crabbing about those parties because you're not invited."
"I'd like to be," Elmer admitted.
Elmer also disapproved of the geologists teasing Theodore Mitchell about Dian Flanners, the new office worker who had already sorted out the files. "Was it a virgin lake you named for her?" they asked. Mitchell seemed more concerned about the coffee spilt on his pants by one of the high-school-boy waiters than about the teasing. "Mitchell and Dian Flanners must have broken up," Elmer thought. "Maybe because of my friend Artie."
The next tune which came out of the loudspeaker was one which Dian sang around the office, "I'll see you again, ..... Whenever spring breaks through again." Sometimes she was sad when she sang it, sometimes the opposite. Elmer wondered if all women were so uppy and downy and if Queena was. He peered again over heads at his beloved, but just a glimpse of her white forehead stiffened his hose pipe so he looked at the new matron, Miss Thelma Stevens, who sat with upright posture at a nearby table.
Miss Stevens came from the same sort of back east family as his own, and was really not a dragon. In fact, Elmer supposed that her mission to improve Norman Wells might have more success than the matron Hattie's across the river.
"The atmosphere of this camp is bestial," Miss Stevens had complained. "It's been too long without the softness of women!"
"But there's a wife at the refinery," Elmer protested. "She's been there for years. She lives in a house, even, and has a kitchen."
"That woman's a drunk," the matron said sharply. "She hob nobs with the wife of the Yorkshireman from Fort Norman."
"With the Indian mother in the tent with several children?"
"Yes," Miss Stevens replied. "Mrs. Beaumiere spends her time in their tent when she's not under the influence. She's almost an Indian herself. I wanted her to help me introduce culture to camp, ...to at least lend us her piano, but she refused."
"Camp could use culture," Elmer had agreed.
"My first step," the matron went on, "Will be to start a Glee Club. Have you a voice?"
"I used to sing baritone in the church choir," Elmer said proudly.
"You're a find!" Miss Stevens was pleased. "I plan to set up a library and begin a newspaper. People's minds have to be diverted from drinking and gambling." She did not add "sex" but Elmer supposed that it was included, although with soft creatures in camp, how could anyone's mind be diverted? Still, he told her that he hoped she would civilize camp.
"Thank you," the matron said. "Already I realize it's going to take some doing. When I talked to Mrs. Beaumiere, she told me that the priests had tried to bring Jesus to the country but that the caribou god and spirits of other animals had absorbed him. Mrs. Beaumiere dared warn me, `Betsune Yeneca will absorb you too.'"
"Who's Betsune Yeneca?" Elmer asked.
"An Indian spirit," the matron said. "The name means `Raised by his grandmother.' There are legends about him... Such nonsense that I could be touched by anything Indian! Mrs. Beaumiere was off her head."
"Bushed," Elmer said.
"I am the one person in this camp who will not succumb to the North," the matron stated firmly. "I have made up my mind to it."
"My mind is made up too," Elmer said as he and Miss Stevens vigorously shook hands.
Now, in the mess hall, Elmer hoped that the matron would not learn about his playing poker when he returned from the trip down the pipeline road that evening. As he removed his glasses and wiped them on the tail of his checked flannel shirt, he thought, "But I'm gambling only once and it's for a purpose."
The poker players, some of whom were geologists, did not appreciate the matron's cultural mission. Elmer heard them label her a "Stringocephalus burtini," after a beak-like fossil. "For her own good, someone should lay that pelecypod," one of them said.
"I'll bet you couldn't," a second player challenged.
Elmer did not hear more because Dian Flanners and another typist came out of the kitchen, their girlish faces mixed among little packages and apples.
"We're ready to cross the river and travel down the road," Dian said. "The cookies actually gave us roast beef for the sandwiches!"
Elmer started to hold out his bag for some of the packages and apples but, just then, Queena sauntered to their table. "Hello!" she said, her little mouth sweetly curved. "Let's go, huh!"
Elmer was so affected that he nearly sent the apples onto the floor. Afterwards, Queena's throaty chuckle and little skirt tight around her buttocks so tied him up that he was aware of nothing for many minutes. In fact, he forgot where he was, where he and the gang were going, why they soon were approaching the dock, and then waiting for the ferry which did not appear. He only understood the little laughs of his beloved, thrown out to anyone willing to pick them up. They made him dazed, happy, and willing to remain near her on the Norman Wells dock forever and ever.
It was only later, when Elmer had finally reached the Camp Canol dock, that he awoke from the ecstatic state. By then, he was without Queena and was in the unexciting company of the whiskery geological helper Butch, of Dian Flanners and Violet, a young typist. What had happened was that the ferry had been blocked from crossing to Norman Wells because of laying pipe between the islands. Finally, after waiting an hour on the Norman Wells dock, someone had persuaded the Indian pilot of the Mary T to take the gang to Bear Island. There each one had to jump off the prow onto the shore, and Elmer himself jumped. When he turned to lift off little Queena, a wave rocked the cruiser. So there Queena was, separated from him by three feet of icy water. and in the clutches of the whiskered Professor. "Come along Pepman," Butch had muttered.
Before he had time to think, Elmer and the other three had scrambled over the new pipe and were carried by the ferry across the rest of the river to the Camp Canol dock. Elmer, out of his daze, wanted to sail right back to Norman Wells Before he could protest, however, they all climbed into the back of a pickup truck which drove up the bank to the U.S.E.D. office.
"Hello!" Fanny greeted everyone warmly, and little Dian fell into her arms.
"Dian ought to come back to work with us," Fanny told him.
"That can only be decided when Major Linn returns from Whitehorse," Elmer said stiffly.
"Fanny didn't ask me," Dian laughed, and then both women laughed at him, as women always did.
Unfortunately, the truck that Fanny had arranged to take them to the end of the road, had just left with reporters from the Outside. "We decided you weren't coming," Fanny said. "The reporters started out half an hour ago."
"In that case, we can go right back to Norman Wells," Elmer said
"Oh no!" the little redhead protested. "We'll just thumb our way."
Elmer, too loyal to desert, followed the others to the side of the gravel road where, like any tramp, he waited for a lift. "How ashamed my father would be of me!" he thought as he felt for his tie. He had forgotten that there was no tie on the flannel shirt he had just bought from his fellow poker-player, Jenson.
A trucker on his way to the new Camp Canol on the dry ridge, stopped for them. When they had scrambled up over the tail gate, they found two equipment checkers leaning back on sofas.
"Good heavens - sofas!" Dian exclaimed, sinking with Elmer into comfort.
One of the checkers explained that the sofas were for the proposed pumping stations along the pipeline. "When the pump men start workin'" he said. "They'll be permanent and they won't be permanent without wives and no wife'll come if there ain't nothin' to sit on."
"But the road isn't even through the mountains yet, Butch said. "No pipe has been laid, and so far, there's not enough oil!"
"I'm just giving you the plan," the checker said.
The road and pipeline will get finished," Dian said. "and soon there'll be oil. There's no question about it... If there are sofas and wives, civilization will really be here!"
Elmer basically agreed, and when they drove into new Camp Canol, he felt civilization had already flung in its hat. The new camp was a regular town with row on row of prefabricated igloos set on neat streets. There were repair yards, warehouses, offices and a huge lumber mess hall that was nearly complete.
The four from Norman Wells climbed out of the truck at a warehouse where the sofas were to be stored, and were immediately picked up by an empty gravel truck bound for gravel pits by the Carcajou River. Surely it did not befit a solid person like Elmer to be rattling about in the wind with no place to sit but on a pebbly floor! He wanted to complain, but then he got carried away by Dian's enthusiasm for the way the truck could so easily whiz down a road across the muskeg. "The contracting firm has learned how to manage the melting permafrost and mud," Dian explained to Butch and the young typist. "A month ago the Canol Project was bogged down and now look, crews of men are laying pipe all along the way!"
"The Canol Project's on the move!" Elmer joined in as he forgot the undignified way in which he was making his way along a highway at the top of the world.
When the truck deposited them by the Carcajou River, they began walking across a new bridge supported by piles placed in gravel between the stream braids. "Ruben told me that one of his buddies was beheaded here," Elmer said. "A wire snapped in two when the soldiers were building a crib bridge. Later that bridge was washed out."
"Yes," Dian said. "It was only a month ago and now we're walking over the conquered Carcajou!"
"Things are different now," Elmer said, surprised that he could be positive about anything when separated from Queena.
Butch too, was caught up in their excitement. "The oil part of the Canol Project is improving," he admitted. "An island downriver from Norman Wells has oil under it... That is, the geology is the same as under the flowing wells on Goose and Bear Islands."
"Are you talking about Raider Island?" Elmer asked.
"That's the one," Butch said.
"Major Linn's in Whitehorse now," Elmer told him. "He's talking to people who'll set up a wildcat company to drill Raider Island."
"I plan to work on a drilling rig as soon as I've finished my job as a geological helper," Butch said.
"I'd also like to work on a rig," Elmer said without thinking. He started to add that office work had never suited him, but their attention was taken by a carrymore station wagon which honked and hurried them off the narrow bridge.
"Did you notice that it was Coby who drove that carrymore," Butch said. "the fishing captain who didn't give a damn about what was happening to our geological party!"
The law student made a lewd remark that Elmer preferred not to hear. In fact, he blushed, but then, unable to help himself, he too made a lewd remark, "Coby is a screwy screwing screw!"
"Pepman! You're a wit!" Butch said, slapping him on the back.
Since Coby's carrymore had rushed by without stopping to give them a lift, they thumbed a great gasoline truck. The driver gladly invited all of them into the roomy cab. "Three of you can sit next to me," he said, "and one just behind."
He inched the heavy-laden truck into a stream-cut box canyon at the foot of the Mackenzie Mountains. The four sightseers from Norman Wells felt that, like the Canol Project, they were making progress into what had been entirely unknown wilderness two months before. The slow pace of the truck enabled them to savor each cliff and castle shape, now in shadow, now suddenly revealed in full sunlight. In some places the canyon was a mere slit so that wheels of the truck sloshed through its creek.
Butch, who had explored similar terrain on the expedition with the Professor and Theodore, told them something about the geology. They were on the edge of the Mackenzie Mountains, he said, a northern extension of the Rockies, which rose from near sea-level at the canyon mouth, to seven thousand feet. The Mackenzies were a chain on the east of range after range which rose towards the heights of Alaska, several hundred miles to the west. The Mackenzies were also a Continental Divide between the Pacific drainage of the Yukon and the Arctic drainage of the Athabaska-Slave-Mackenzie.
As the truck crept along, they shared their sandwiches and apples. Between his bites, the trucker told them "A new road is being built in Burma. The pay is better but I'm not going there."
"Why not?" Elmer asked.
"It's this way," the trucker said. "When I get a load up through these canyons, I feel that I've done something for my kids back home. Burma's too far away."
The road made a right angle turn into a canyon which, the trucker said, was "Dodo Canyon." Its tall cliffs and hoodoo shapes reminded the trucker of canyons he had driven in Arizona. "It sure's pretty!" Violet remarked.
"Around the next bend it's even prettier," the trucker told her. Indeed it was. A waterfall tumbled down a canyon wall in a wide place with willow and alder bushes. Everyone exclaimed, and the trucker said that the Mile 36 pumping station was going to be built there.
"And a house for a wife and a sofa!" Dian added.
Elmer thought the pumpman's wife could run a hamburger joint - a wayside stop between the Mackenzie Valley and the Alaska Highway.
"Would you like to be a wife here?" Butch asked the big-boned, blue-eyed Violet.
She, the sort who would likely remain a little sister forever, replied, " I wouldn't mind the hamburger part, but to scrub floors for some man and his kids... not me!"
To Elmer, the rainbow waterfall was singing. It made him long for a wife, and when Dian said, "It might be fun to bring up children here," he almost wished he were the one to give them to her.
Dian had spoken wistfully, as though she had someone in mind from whom she would like an impregnation. Perhaps Artie Schuman had refused to marry her because he and his men were going to be sent out of the North to the war in Europe.
The canyon narrowed once more, and the newly constructed road began to climb beside a creek flowing through straight walls. It made Elmer think of the "straight and narrow" and that if he didn't have to stick to it, he could take Artie Schuman's place. The "sticking to it" was because, alas, only dream women turned him on, ones already opened who liked fat pocket books. Once, in man-to-man confidence, his father had said, "You're like me. I can see it. It'll only be when you've established yourself that you can enter a female. And you had better pick one already opened and prepared. Women who are stopped up are just the dickens!"
"Reality must be faced," Elmer sighed to himself as, in the cab of the gasoline truck, he sat between the soft bodies of two stopped-up girls with the charm of the innocent.
Indeed, he found the two did have charm. As the truck came to crews working along the road, the driver would honk in friendly greeting and the men would look up. Then they would drop their shovels in astonishment when the girls waved to them. "You are delicious creatures from another planet," Elmer told Dian and Violet, as his own personal longing for the delicious creature which was Queena became unbearable.
Of course Elmer did value little Dian's exploring spirit which joined his up to a mountain pass. In fact, it somewhat diverted him to notice the canyon formations and then, the tundra slopes.
"This is where the road ends today," the trucker told them as, at the top, they looked westward and down. He stopped the gasoline truck to let Elmer and the other three climb out of the cab. As old buddies, they thanked him, and he waved from the cab window before driving off to a nearby line camp.
It was blowing and cold on the pass. Butch and Violet hurried to a parked truck and climbed in the back under a canvas blanket which covered several others. Elmer and Dian remained side by side gazing into the far beyond. "That must be Mt. Lilian" Dian said, pointing to a peak which rose above the glaciated uplands.
"Maybe so," Elmer said. Even though the wind blew through his parka and tried to blow off his glasses, he was stirred by the great ranges to the south and west, by the stormy sky around them and the blue chasms at their feet. He was glad that Dian, who felt the same way, was his companion.
They agreed to return to the pass and go on together when the road would be further along towards Whitehorse. "I'd like to wander in all the wild and windy places that are off the road," Dian said, "into all the spruce-covered valleys."
"But you will," Elmer said. "Don't you see? When the Mackenzie Valley is booming, all those ranges will be just a step away. You can spend vacations hiking in mountain valleys all the way to Fairbanks."
To his consternation Elmer had become over-excited again. It was a relief when a fellow in dark glasses, who had climbed out of the parked truck, crossed the road to join them.
"I'm Peter Bright of the Kansas City Star," the man said, pulling his parka hood close around his face and glasses. Apparently the parked truck was the one they had missed at Camp Canol.
"Did I hear one of you speak about Fairbanks?" Mr. Bright asked. "Fairbanks is in the far north in Alaska. We're only in Canada."
Although he gave the impression of being a dude, a type from the Outside, Elmer politely replied that Fairbanks was about six hundred miles due west of the pass. "The pipeline is headed southwest to Whitehorse which is in Canada," Elmer said, sure that Mr. Bright wore a stiff collar and tie under his parka.
"Some undertaking," Peter Bright said. He too was impressed by the mysterious Arctic ranges through which the pipeline would go.
"The oil pipeline is only the beginning," Dian put in, and Elmer went on to expound to the reporter about the industrialization which would come to the region because of the great new source of energy in the Mackenzie Valley. "A large field of oil will be discovered any day now," Elmer said.
For more information:
P.O. Box 185