Earning your living by the ton
DEW means Distant Early Warning. We were constructing a line of radar stations fifty miles apart, along the extreme northern edge of the North American land mass, in rather inhospitable conditions. I had a large scientific thermometer with which I occasionally observed that the temperature was
a constant forty degrees below zero. Fahrenheit or Centigrade doesn't matter -- that's the one temperature which is identical on both scales. I have only recently learned that forty below is also the temperature at which mercury freezes. The Arctic still air temperature was, in fact, far colder than -40.
I had gotten off a boat in New York harbour in January 1956. I took a train to Montreal where I didn't know a living soul, and had no prospects. I was a new immigrant, upholding the traditions of the Old World. Back home it was considered the done thing on arrival in the New World to get a job as a ditch digger. 1 had had enough of my desk job in Liverpool.
The Immigration Department of the Canadian government had a huge building downtown full of staff whose sole purpose was to cope with the huge influx of immigrants those days. The staff were skilled at finding jobs for the tired and hungry masses pouring off the boats. But this was January. The St Lawrence river was frozen solid and no boats arrived. Nobody immigrates to Canada on January 4th in any year. I arrived at the reception desk. It was in the biggest office I have ever seen. It occupied a whole city block. Behind the counter were desks stretching away to infinity. In the remote distance I could see clerks doing crossword puzzles, gathered round coffee urns, or simply laughing and chattering — anything to while away the boredom, waiting for five o'clock.
There was no-one within miles of the counter I stood at. I suppose that anyone who did glance my way simply assumed I was delivering something, and quite undeserving of their attention. Nowadays I would shout "Oi, 'ave yer got a minute" but those days I was still steeped in the British tradition of respect in the presence of authority. I form- ed a queue of one, and waited.
After many long minutes a man came through the door behind me and went toward an office on the left. He paused, turned, and came to me with a quizzical expression. "Anybody helping you?" he said.
I apologized at once, reluctantly admitting that no-one was.
"What do you want?" he asked.
"I just came to Canada" I answered, "I was hoping to find a job; am I in the right place?"
"Good God", he said, "we weren't expecting anyone, this is January. I'm the Director. Come into my office."
From behind the imposing desk in his comfortable office he flipped on the intercom and requested tea for two. When the door had closed behind the lady who brought it he confided that she was the wife of the former ambassador to Canada from a communist bloc country. She and her ambassador husband had defected to the West in the shadow of the scandal caused by the famous Igor Gouzenko. "One of our more successful placements" he said; "she knows so many languages we grabbed her for ourselves." I felt I was in the right hands. Perhaps, in the absence of language skills on my part he might be able to make use of my knowledge of Northern English dialects, which I employ when telling off-colour jokes.
But good sense cautioned me that this was an inappropriate moment to launch into the one about the stable boy and the farmer's daughter, I was here to find a job.
I felt honour-bound to ask about ditch digging; but he would hear none of it. "Can you drive a snowplough?" he enquired, "much more money in that. There's lots of snow lying about." I could hardly explain that whenever it snows in the Isle of Man it gets on the front page of both newspapers. I couldn't imagine what a snowplough was. I had hitherto been quite unfamiliar with snow.
I spent a pleasant morning in his office, during which he learned much about me, and in return I heard his life story. Finally he said: "Well, since you don't have any money we'd better find you a well-paid job where you can't get into mischief. How would you like to work in the Arctic?"
A week later I was a labourer on a six month contract at FOX site 30, some two thousand miles north of Montreal. He was quite right. I couldn't get into mischief and my employers, the Foundation Company of Canada, were putting a net $400 a month into a Montreal bank for me, a small fortune in 1956.
For that money I did very hard physical labour ten hours a day, seven days a week. It was night work, although you couldn't tell because the sun didn't come up until February, and construction went on round the clock anyway. FOX was the main supply base for six smaller sites, three on either side, all on or near the coast. Supplies had been deposited by ship at all DEW line sites during a six-week ice-free window the previous June/July.
There were beachmasters present at every shipment, who laid out the location of the vast quantities of fuel, stores and construction material as they were unloaded, and who made careful notes and plans. Then they would quit. The winter snows came, and nobody found anything until next year. If they did find something it was usually quite unserviceable because the giant D-8 bulldozers had been driven over them all winter, in the Arctic blackness.
So everything was bought and paid for twice. The second time, it was flown up to the ten main bases, then laterally to the subordinate four or five sites. All at horrendous cost. I seem to recall that it cost the American taxpayer some four hundred million dollars. It was a standing joke among us that if you listened carefully you could hear the screams coming from Washington every time a supply plane took off.
I was put with a work crew of six French-Canadians who spoke only a strange dialect of French, quite incomprehensible to me. The foreman, a very energetic man named Paquette, did speak English; otherwise I'd have been completely lost.
Behind Paquette's back the crew called him "Auntie" for some obscure reason. He drove us on unrelentingly and at the same time did more work than we did. A small man but swift and wiry. He bounded about, giving help here, exhorting the workers there to greater efforts, sometimes pushing us aside to show us how he wanted something done. He was a fair-minded man and a very good supervisor. A demon for work.
It was hard, exhausting physical labour. I keenly appreciate the book "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" by Solzhenytsin. Our work consisted of loading and unloading freighter aircraft, mainly DC-3's. They had no seats, only a shiny metal floor and ribbed sides. The commonest outbound cargo was 44-gallon barrels of diesel fuel, the life-blood of the Arctic.
A forklift operator would bring two barrels from the fuel dump and raise them to the height of the open door. Occasionally in the darkness the operator would skewer the aircraft with the two prongs so we'd get a short rest. Inside the plane two men would receive the heavy barrels, then roll one all the way forward, heave it upright, and manoeuvre it to the side of the aircraft. Two others were already on their way up the slope with the second barrel. By this time the forklift operator was back with two more barrels. A DC-3 took twelve or fourteen barrels down each side. Paquette, who was a rigger, would lash them tight with ropes. The lives of the crew depended on his skill. Every DEW line site is littered with the fragments of aircraft which lost control during takeoff when cargo shifted to the rear.
The barrels were covered in snow, which fell off as we rolled them up the fifteen degree slope of the aircraft floor. Each barrel weighs 485 pounds, enough to crush the snow and form ice on the sloping floor. For the first dozen barrels the job was extremely difficult: we had to push them up a slope becoming increasingly icy.
We wore heavy arctic clothing, hoods over our heads, mitts on our hands, and mukluks on our feet. As the work progressed it became more and more difficult to get up the slippery slope. For the last dozen barrels we tied ropes on each side of the pilot's door, led them along the floor to the loading area, over a barrel, and back up front. Two men pulled, two more pushed from behind as best they could, slipping and sliding on the icy floor. Then they heaved it into place and hastened back for the next barrel.
Eyes would water, eyelashes would slowly freeze together, noses would run. You couldn't stop to take your mitts off and melt your eyelashes apart again with your fingers. You couldn't wipe your nose; no paper tissues. No handkerchieves because there was no laundry because there was no water. Ice formed on your upper lip and backed up into each nostril. You had to work with your mouth open. As you gasped and panted under the exertion you exhaled clouds of vapour which hid whatever your frozen eyes could make out in the dim light, blinkered like a horse by the fur-trimmed hood pulled over your head as far forward as possible. You inhaled super-chilled air though your mouth, air which was not pre-warmed by your nasal passages. Air which was about ninety or a hundred degrees below freezing. It felt as if your lungs would freeze solid.
Seven days a week, ten hours a day, with thirty minutes for a meal. Sometimes we got a brief break in the work shack at the side of the primitive runway. There was no tea or coffee. There were only tins of acidic and sugarless grapefruit juice to drink, which exaggerated your thirst. No break if there was an aircraft waiting. Never in all my life have I felt so bone-weary. Twenty-four barrels of diesel fuel weigh six tons.
And yet there was worse. Food shipments came regularly in large DC-6 freighters, loaded with wooden crates stacked from floor to ceiling. Each crate was about twenty-four inches long, eight inches deep, and ten inches wide. Inside would be a dozen large cans of food. Total weight twenty odd pounds.
An empty six-by-six open truck would back up to the DC-6. Two men stood on the back of the truck. Inside the aircraft two men would bend down, pick up a crate and pass it over to the truck where it was stacked. As a space cleared around the door of the aircraft two more men were passing crates to the two at the door. As more space cleared, they had to throw them: no time to walk there and back. As time passed and the pile receded, the throwing distance increased between us.
Again, no time to stop. You tossed a twenty pound crate down the line, turned immediately and caught the one coming toward you. It was usually already in mid-air. It could hit you anywhere and it always hit you with a sharp corner, never a flat side. You clutched it to your chest and added to the momentum of the corners driving into your body. You turned, launched it on down the line, and turned back to stagger under the impact of the next. The punishment increased as you became more tired. Your neighbours moved further away from you. A DC-6 holds twelve tons of food. Every man moved every piece of that twelve tons.
The workers on the open back of the truck were less fortunate. In the Arctic, you have to keep one engine of an aircraft running if you have any hope of getting off the ground again in the near future. Our own vehicles kept their engines running all winter. The vehicle maintenance building was well heated because if a mechanic dropped a cold wrench on frozen ground it usually shattered.
So the pilots shut off the port engines, leaving the starboard engines generating the power needed to restart them. The men on the truck were exposed to turbulent blasts of Arctic air from the propellors on the starboard motors. The risk of frostbite was very real.
When the aircraft was unloaded we all piled on board the truck, sat on the food crates huddled against the wind, went down to the warehouse... and then? We repeated the entire performance, only this time the distances we threw the crates inside the warehouse were greater. That was the same twelve tons, for a total of twenty four tons. Some nights we'd get back to the strip and find the first DC-6 had gone and another one was waiting for us. Forty eight tons a night. Bone-weary doesn't begin to describe it. I would find myself hoping for the Sisyphian labour of pushing 485 pound diesel barrels up a fifteen degree ice slope inside a DC-3.
And that is how I began my career in the New World.
Former arctic stevedore PAUL GREGSON has not confined his talents to hoisting frozen barrels. He has lately been doing extraordinary things with the data processing systems of San Francisco Regional Mensa.
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