Flush and Sprint
In ten seasons working the arctic offshore, Henry Seine had never encountered anything quite so disgusting as the shitpile. He realized its presence one icebound morning in May, while on his way to the head to soak his hands in hot water. He ducked fast up the windward side of the camp barge, where a north wind beat down off the polar pack and threatened to make freezer-burned steak out of one side of his face.
The camp barge lay in frozen anchorage at the trailing end of a gravel causeway that stretched twenty-five miles into the Arctic Ocean. Out here, the windward side of anything was no place to stop and gawk, but Seine couldn’t help himself. Behind him the camp barge superstructure loomed like a three-story trailer park. Before him the main gangway sloped thirty feet from the barge edge to the gravel below, spanning a narrow lagoon. There on the ice, looking like a pile of frozen mud laced with toilet tissue, lay five days’ accumulation of human sewage.
It appealed only slightly to Seine’s morbid sense of humor that he had survived 138 days on a winter drill rig, trying to keep the Big Man from stepping on his neck, only to find himself two months later choking on a pile of frozen shit.
The Pile had emerged because Al George had grown tired of trying to fix the broken sewage processor and because the entire crew had grown tired of the Dry Way. Just a week before, each toilet stall had come equipped with a five-gallon bucket and a roll of tall kitchen trash bags. Crewmen would sit on the plastic rim, empty themselves out, tie off the bag, and carry it to the garbage Dumpster on their way to work each morning. Carrying a bag of your own crap was part of the daily routine.
On this particular morning, Seine seemed to be the only worker in camp who wondered what the hell their customers would think of it all. He wondered this partly because a group of them—four Exxon managers—were currently approaching the main gangway, and partly because the Big Man was doing what he called a Flush and Sprint.
Arctic nomenclature had a tortured kind of bluntness to it, and the Flush and Sprint was just that. It began with a Flush, exploding from somewhere in the bowels of the camp barge, and ended with the Sprint: the Big Man, all 6-8, 280 pounds of him, hauling ass around the corner and skidding to a stop just in time to see his own turd pile overboard. The sewage steamed there until it froze over, which in the climate of May took all of about fifteen seconds.
“Why don’t you just take a dump right in front of people?” Seine said.
“Why do you not mind your own business?” said the Big Man in his methodically Big Accent, his great Slavic eyes staring dully down at Seine.
Seine nodded in the direction of the Exxon managers, who paused at the base of the gangway, logos emblazoned atop their white hard hats. Their eyes darted from the Pile to the Big Man as if no amount of corporate training could have possibly prepared them for a moment such as this. When the Big Man saw their reaction, the color drained from his face.
Seine had spent the winter working for the Big Man on an exploratory rig at Cross Island—an Exxon rig, in fact—and he knew firsthand how important managerial perceptions were to him. Learning to read the Big Man’s moods while doing hard labor fifty miles offshore in the frozen dark was a simple matter of survival. Now Seine watched the Big Man move his lips in a vain attempt to form words out of the primordial mush that filled his mouth. He searched for English that eluded him in direct proportion to the pressure of the moment, and there was no mistaking the pressure of having taken a dump in front of four oil company white hats. “It—it is always good to know where your shit has gone! It was once a part of you!” he announced, as if this would actually explain something. Then he growled under his breath, “It is better than the Dry Way, Mr. Seine.”
Seine had no argument there. With the Dry Way not only did you know where your shit went, you had to take it there personally. So he closed his mouth, turned on a heel, and ran to the camp barge head to soak the feeling back into his hands.
Since the season of his twenty-second birthday, Seine had led a migratory existence, coming north each spring and flying south each fall in a great circle of profit and loss. The bulk of that profit was gained in the service of Biller Ocean Transport, which had earned its reputation as well as a considerable fortune using oceangoing tugs and barges to haul heavy equipment into the North Slope oilfields.
Fourteen years before, during the frozen debacle of ’75, harbor tugs and dredgers spent an icebound October stuffing cargo barges into a shoal-ridden dock on the east end of Prudhoe Bay. Even the dredgers couldn’t keep a channel open, not with ten months of ice scouring the shallow tundra shore. So the following winter the oil companies built a causeway, a raised gravel road that ran offshore into the deeper waters of the Beaufort Sea. From the air this causeway looked like a giant neuron, a tendril of gray meandering north to nowhere. Finally it turned east and flared like a terminal bulb before stopping abruptly at a sheet-steel dock face known as North Dock. And there lay Bil- ler’s camp, fifteen flat steel barges buried in snow, clinging to the last strip of connected land before a two-thousand-mile stretch of frozen ocean. Anything beyond here was strictly for dogsleds and crazy people.
On the morning of the Pile, Seine’s belly surged for having skipped breakfast, thanks to sewage-induced loss of appetite. In his room on the second level, he pulled insulated coveralls over jeans and sweatshirt and felt a familiar squeeze inside himself. He hated things like shitpiles. He hated the hubris they implied. He kept imagining how the Pile would smell after it thawed.
He felt like doing a flush and sprint of his own: flush his job down the toilet and sprint off across the polar pack. The only thing that kept him from it was a $250,000 construction loan coming due on his house in Washington State, and the overriding reality that sprinting across the polar pack would freeze his lungs.
Geared up for a frigid twelve hours outside, Seine grabbed a snow shovel from the equipment van and made his way through the labyrinth of the 200-foot camp barge. He crossed a grated steel catwalk connecting fore and aft housing units, fought a crosswind that howled through the second-level vans, and ducked down a blocky wooden staircase to the heart of the main deck. The main gangway lay to his north. He heard a toilet flush. He swung south past the rear of the double-wide galley van and squeezed along a leeward passage between a reefer van and a stout wooden structure housing the desalinator, better known as the watermaker. The camp barge rose in chaos all around him, born by no plan but the inspiration of sudden need, which involved mostly the seasonal housing of longshoremen, tugboat crews, and barge laborers. To Seine it looked like a windblown shanty town grafted onto a bloated houseboat.
As he made his way through the barge, Seine stuffed his free hand into his jacket pocket, where his numbed fingertips flicked the edge of a letter he’d been writing to his wife, Heather. He’d been writing it for three weeks now and still hadn’t quite made his point even though he’d received three more letters from her in the interim.
He stepped across a narrow gangplank that connected the camp barge to the adjacent equipment barge and started south. He hiked over drifted snow into a section of camp called the String, utility barges shoved bow first into the gravel causeway, lined up side by side like cars in a snowed-in parking lot. Seine hiked from barge to barge out a narrow snow trail that he himself had shoveled. The drifts here were far too deep to shovel away completely, so he merely leveled the snow on top, and set down wooden planking so the Wolf could walk the length of camp without getting snow in his boots.
Seine had shoveled through endless days washed out by the terrible whiteness of arctic ice and punctuated by the throbbing numbness of carpal tunnel syndrome. The rubble of shore-fast ice appeared like broken porcelain stretching to a pale horizon, where it merged with a cirrus sky to eradicate all shadows. Working here was like being encased in a giant white bubble. The only things of color were the camp itself and the thin ribbon of gravel that was their only link to shore.
Underneath the snowdrifts lay the equipment of arctic shipping: coils of line, steel cables, forklifts, diesel generator sets, welding machines, and stacked drums of gasoline and diesel fuel. Where the string barges were shoved into the causeway, massive anchor chains were secured to the barges and tied to cables that ran down into the frozen gravel, where they were shackled to deadmen, odd tangles of welded steel like great winged dragons buried deep in the causeway gravel to keep the entire camp from blowing away on a gale.
The most important cargo on the string barges was the Mos- quito Fleet, six harbor tugs that overwintered each year on the flat long decks. As Seine walked, he counted the wheelhouses and radio antennae that stuck out of the blizzard drifts like steel cabins in an industrial wilderness, and contemplated digging each one out.
At trail’s end he began work, shoveling through the crusted drifts—one, two, three—stabbing and flinging snow downwind with the flat shovel. From out of the south, the pale headlights of a truck meandered out the causeway toward camp: a Chevy Blazer full of more Exxon white hats. The vehicle floated north like a black ghost out of a white fog. When it reached camp, four smudges emerged, vanished into the twisted snarl of the camp barge, and climbed topside to the Com Shack, the lone dispatch and observation room that hovered over camp like a guardhouse over a prison.
Copyright 2002 by David Masiel