Rednecks, Roughnecks, and a Guy Named Catfish
Things to Do When it's 30 Degrees Below Zero
Fairbanks in December is miserable. It's too cold to ski, not that there are any real hills to do it on anyway. It's too cold to make a snowman or a snowball or a snow fort. Snow angels are out of the question. It's too cold to go out to dinner, even if you could get your car started. It's too cold to kiss or rub noses or hold mittens. It's too cold to wear anything from the L.L. Bean winter catalog. It's dark, too, virtually around the clock. When it's not dark, a thick fog made of frozen auto and power plant emissions lowers visibility to a couple of yards. Fairbanks in December is too cold and too dark to do just about anything except lie under the covers with a flask of whiskey and dream about hell.
Of course, all of that assumes the people of Fairbanks are sane. They are not. For starters, normal people don't live in a place where you have to plug your car in when you get home at night so it will start again in the morning. They don't live in a place where outhouses outnumber convenience stores. They don't live in a place where the equivalent of softball in the park is a leisurely rugby game played in temperatures colder than 30 below zero on a frozen river that doubles as a highway for most of the year.
These were my thoughts as I drove into town around noon on December 10, my first Saturday in Alaska. That morning the temperature had gone up from 40 below zero to 30 below, yet the heater in my truck still failed to keep me warm. It was just starting to get light outside when I hit the Fairbanks town line. This was one of my first real looks at Alaska. For a guy who knew the state from documentaries on the Discovery Channel, the vista was pretty lame.
No giant mountains, no streams or rivers, no picturesque cabins, no grizzly — there was just a straight, flat road cut through a wilderness of spruce trees. I assumed they were spruce, but the thin trees actually looked more like bottle washers. The woods broke as I crossed the flood plain for the Tanana River. The clearing provided a hint of the other Alaska; a row of barely visible mountain peaks rose from the south. After a few more miles, the main feature of the drive presented itself. It was the village of North Pole, where a fifty-foot Santa Claus beckoned me to go Christmas shopping. As I approached Fairbanks, more houses appeared. I expected solid structures that could ward off the cold and heavy snow, but the houses seemed little different from shacks I had seen in small towns in the Lower 48. Then there was the junk. Broken-down cars and appliances and other industrial equipment was peeking out from the blanket of snow on the roadside. Fast food wrappers cluttered the shoulders. As I approached Fairbanks, the road began to buckle under my tires. Frost heaves. The frozen ground under the highway had thawed in some places, causing the road to ripple like a washboard. I exited for the Mitchell Expressway. Fairbanks lay sprawled out to my right. Instead of seeing some arctic village of log cabins, I saw an industrial-looking town that could have been in Ohio: parking lots with trucks, small bars with neon signs, a half dozen strip malls, traffic clogging the streets, and auto exhaust misting the air.
I didn't go into the town center that day. My destination was a restaurant on the outskirts of Fairbanks, near the airport. Pike's Landing stood on the edge of the Chena River, and it was the meeting point for the big rugby game. Eager to experience Alaska, I had told a couple of guys I met the night before that I would play.
It's always tense entering a strange bar in a strange land alone. When you open the door, you expect the piano player to stop the music and a wild man with an unkempt beard to spit tobacco at your feet. Fortunately, I figured, there wouldn't be a large bar crowd around noon. I was wrong. The place was packed to the gills with giant men and women sporting Kmart-style flannel and well-worn Carhartts. Most of them were well past their first round. As far as I could tell, I was the only one who showed up looking for a rugby game. Everyone else appeared to be there for an Elks Club meeting or a cockfight.
Several people looked at me when I walked in. Satisfied I wasn't the game warden, they immediately turned back to their drinks. I casually walked up to the bar as if I had been there a hundred times before. I wanted to order a hard drink to fit in with the gun club atmosphere, but since I was expecting to play rugby, I ordered a Coke. Maybe everyone would think there was rum in it. I tried not to stare around the place but couldn't resist looking at the collection of dead animals on the walls. There was a giant moose head, grizzly furs, ram and caribou heads, some birds, some fish, and some other creatures I didn't recognize.
The guy on my right was staring at me through a set of deeply sunken eyes. Even though he was seated, I could tell he was a monster, probably responsible for a couple of the grizzly furs on the walls. He looked to be in his forties — but then again, so do a lot of Alaskan high school students. His shoulders and thick beard suggested he might be a lumberjack. He held a full pint of beer in his hand. There were several empty pint glasses in front of him and what appeared to be a well-used knife on his belt. He seemed like the kind of guy who was raised by a woman with an eye patch and a bad limp, the kind of guy who would be barred from the White House tour just for the way he looked. He was, in short, one of the most intimidating men I had ever seen. I avoided his stare the best I could. As I looked down at my shrinking manhood, I saw a rugby bag next to his feet on the floor.
"You here for the game?" he asked.
Please, please, please don't be a rugby player. "Which game is that?"
"The rugby game. We should be getting started in a bit."
Okay, stay calm. There's an airport close by. You could head for the door and book the next flight back to someplace warm, someplace without chandeliers made from antlers. It's not like you have to play the game. The worst thing that will happen to you is that someone might call you a girly man. So what if word gets around that you really don't have the stuff. Better to quit now and run away and live to play some other day — in some other state with a lot of midgets. Right? Or you could stop being a wimp and just play. You said you wanted to experience Alaska. Well, here's your chance, bub. Whatever happens, happens. If it gets real bad, you can always fake an injury.
"So what do you say?"
"Yes. Yes, I am. I am here for the rugby game. The rugby game on the ice. Outside where it's thirty below."
"Hey, it might warm up some. Might get up to twenty-five below."
His name was J.D. Williams, and he was a longtime Fairbanks rugby player — as were most of the hard-drinking frontiersmen in the bar. I chatted with him for several minutes while waiting for the guys whom I had met earlier in the week. They were Air Force officers like me and easy to spot because they were the only ones in the place without beards or large scars caused by industrial equipment.
Kevin Groff was the first to arrive. He was a little more at home at Pike's than I was. In addition to having been in Fairbanks for a year, Groff bonded with the Alaskan rugby players, who were similar in many ways to the people from his hometown in the remote reaches of Virginia — a place where kissing your sister after a couple of drinks doesn't seem like that bad an idea. Groff was a tobacco-chewin', God-fearin', squirrel-shootin', monster-truck-drivin', go-to-Florida-on-your-honeymoon kind of guy. Despite a keen lack of social grace and a flagrant disregard for any sort of political correctness, Groff is the kind of person you keep around if you never learned to change your car's oil, fix your plumbing, or just plain build shit. I had met him on the night I arrived in Fairbanks three days before.
"Welcome to Alaska," Groff said. "I heard you play rugby. That's good. We have a team here in Fairbanks. I also heard you haven't winterized your car yet. That's bad. Go buy a block heater and have someone put that in. I will put everything else in for you." Since it was clear to Groff that I had never done anything that required a pipe wrench or plumb bob, he immediately took me on as a charity case.
Doug Nikolai arrived a bit later. Nikolai, call sign "Stoli," was an F-16 pilot. He had been in Alaska for a couple of years and was a veteran ice rugby player. It was obvious to me early on that Stoli had gone native. Not only did he drink like an Alaskan, he dressed like one. Let's contrast Stoli's ice rugby gear with mine. I wore a pair of regular long johns, another pair of insulated polypropylene, and a pair of sweatpants. On top, I had a similar arrangement with a rugby shirt over everything else. I wore a wool cap pulled low over my head and a pair of mittens that made it virtually impossible to carry the ball. Stoli wore shorts and a rugby shirt. Did I mention that it was 30 below and that the game was on the ice?
Of course, my attire was much more appropriate than Stoli's. I would be warmer. My skin would be more protected. It was less likely that I would get hurt. It was the sane thing to do. This was Fairbanks in December, though, and sanity goes out the window. Far from being committed, Stoli was praised for his "toughness." He wasn't just another wimpy Air Force guy in town for a year. He had become an Alaskan, tougher than the next guy, independent, afraid of nothing. Stoli did it by wearing only shorts, but other Alaskans were praised that day for having a bigger truck than the next guy, for drinking more beer than anyone else on the planet, or for having a thicker beard than Santa Claus. By the end of the day, I began to sense that my manhood was on trial every minute — and that I was failing miserably.
The game started an hour late. The group of twenty-five players crowding the bar was divided into two teams: the Sundawgs and the Wild Hares. Everyone had consumed several drinks at the bar by the time we headed for the ice — everyone except me, which basically made me look more like a wimp. However, these guys weren't just drinking for the taste of it; they were premedicating themselves for a level of pain I was not accustomed to.
Getting tackled on the snow and ice in 30-below temperatures hurts, but breathing the arctic air is like swallowing lye; it was impossible to catch your breath. I couldn't talk or breathe normally for more than a week after the game. I had played sports in the cold during New York winters; after you moved around for a little, you tended to warm up. In Fairbanks in December, you never get warm.
The first half ended when we paused to let several trucks pass over the frozen river. At halftime, both teams made it back inside the bar for more warming liquor. This time I had no reservations. Despite a couple of drinks, however, the second half of the game was as painful as the first, and I thanked God as the daylight faded so we couldn't play anymore. Stoli, the Air Force pilot turned Alaskan, was the big hero of the day. Despite his frozen, bloody legs, he had managed to score three trys (a touchdown in rugby), leading the Sundawgs to victory. There was much celebration, but to be honest, I didn't really care. I only wanted to get warm, which seemed the sane — albeit wimpy — thing to do.
Staking Claim to the Northern Lights
Obsession with the extreme cold is common among newcomers who first reach Alaska in the winter. The cold cuts through layers, and the air seems unfit for breathing, causing a reaction that can only be described as "cold shock" for newcomers as they first step outside at Fairbanks Airport. Many people gag on the temperature as if they are suffocating and immediately retreat to the comfort of the airport lobby. It wouldn't matter if you were driving by a burning building or a dozen nude cheerleaders. Nothing can take away from the feeling of cold and the small voice in the back of your head that wonders if you can survive in this place at all.
Then one day, Stoli advised, you finally get over the shock. It's bone-chilling cold here, and there's nothing I can do about it. That same day, an entire new Alaska opens up before your eyes, an arctic Eden that is both forbidding and inviting at the same time. I thought that moment almost came for me on my drive home from the rugby game.
Since arriving in country that week, I had been pining to see the aurora borealis. The aurora, or northern lights, occurs when the solar wind blows across Earth's magnetic field, generating electrical energy in the form of charged particles in the atmosphere about sixty miles above the surface. When these particles strike molecules in the atmosphere, the air glows, creating an awesome show for anyone in the northern reaches of the planet. Famed Alaskan poet Robert Service described the aurora in his Ballad of the Northern Lights: "They danced a cotillion in the sky; they were rose and silver shod/ It was not good for the eyes of man —'twas a sight for the eyes of God." However it's described, one thing is certain: The aurora is truly divine.
One minute, the sky showed only stars. Moments later, a glow caught my eye, and there, encroaching from the north toward me, was the aurora. Even though I had seen pictures of the lights, I was unprepared for their rhythmic beauty. Two contrails of blue-green light originated at the far north horizon and danced their way ever closer until they commanded the night sky. The colors were celestial, more brilliant than any pattern ever seen on the ground — something from Fantasia, perhaps: animation added to a normal night sky, a painter splashing the colors on with a brush in a long arc that extended beyond the horizon.
I had to pull the truck over and gawk at the lights. Opening the window, I no longer felt the cold and pain that had consumed me only minutes before. My chest welled up, and I lamented that not everyone in the world could be there with me admiring this newfound beauty of Alaska. Even as I mused, though, other cars flew by me, seemingly oblivious to the sight I was watching. A disturbing thought hit me. Will I become immune to this beauty? Will I be like those people just driving by? Maybe I'm like the tourists who marvel at the skyscrapers in Manhattan on their first visit while the New Yorkers impatiently push their way by. Do real Alaskans ever stop to look at the aurora? Or is it just another tall building?
Back in the Heart of Dixie
You should never eat two Big Macs and supersize fries before flying into a hurricane. Of course, nobody mentioned that to me before I strapped myself into the cargo-net seat of a WC-130 airplane headed for a massive storm that swirled somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico. The plane belonged to the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron of the 403rd Air Reserve Wing — Mississippi's famous Hurricane Hunters. Their job was to fly in and out and up and down through a hurricane, taking measurements of the storm along the way and making the guy in the back with special sauce on his fingers sick. The mission was twelve hours long, and I thought it would be fun to go along. In retrospect, it was a lot like drinking tequila. It seems like a good idea at the time, but ...
Drinking was exactly what the first Hurricane Hunters were doing in 1944 when they dared each other to fly through a tropical storm in their AT-6 Texans. Having made two successful flights through the storm, somebody with a sick sense of humor decided it should be a regular thing. The first Hurricane Hunters flew out of Newfoundland in search of perfect storms over the Atlantic. After years of moving and name changes, the unit ultimately found itself at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, the site of Hurricane Camille in 1969, one of the most damaging hurricanes ever to come on land.
I was a public affairs officer at Keesler, and my job during the flight was to escort news crews as they got pictures of the storm from the front lines and interviewed the brave pilots, asking them the right way to hold a barf bag. It was my first flight with the legendary outfit, and I was nervous. Just a few weeks earlier, another public affairs officer was on board when his plane was struck by lightning. Still, I had to go. As a new second lieutenant, I had no "war" stories and desperately needed something to tell the nurse trainees at the base medical center.