Michael Carey: Heavy-duty operator worked hard, but couldn't work forever

January 11, 2014 

R.L. Polk and Co. has published city directories more than 125 years.

For historians and genealogists, these directories are indispensable. They can establish where your ancestors, immediate relatives or people who interest you lived, who their neighbors were, if they were married and where they worked.

I have a thick maroon and gold Fairbanks directory I dip into now and again. It's the first Polk for the Golden Heart City, published in 1959.

1959 was important to me personally and important to Alaska history. I entered high school in 1959; Alaska became a state in 1959. For both of us, this was a year of transition.

My family is in the directory, living at 548 Front St. in the suburb of Graehl across the Chena River from downtown Fairbanks. My Dad, Fabian, is described as a "heavy-duty operator." Construction, especially military construction, was a major component of the Alaska economy during the 1950s. Contractors had numerous pieces of outsized equipment -- cranes, cats, trucks -- requiring skilled heavy-duty operators and heavy-duty mechanics.

Many construction jobs, especially those on Ladd Field and Eielson Air Force Base, were unionized and paid overtime. An experienced hand could support a middle-class family, although his presence in the middle class was less precarious if his wife worked. My mother, Mary, did. For the City Health Center, as Polk notes. She was a public health nurse.

The Polk directory is not known for metaphor yet I find myself wondering: Does the phrase "heavy-duty operator," at once vivid and vague, refer to Fabian's daily responsibilities on the job or allude to his intense pursuit of life?

Fabian enjoyed construction, especially when working outdoors. This was not sitting in an office where results were incremental or invisible. On a construction job, something visible got done every day. Fabian was fully at home in the macho give and take that flourished among construction workers. If you had trouble with a co-worker or the boss, you fixed the problem through persuasion -- in Fabian's case, high decibels were his favored mode of persuasion -- or with your fists. Inevitably, Fabian had differences he could not settle in his favor. Digging around in his papers after he died, I found a pink slip; he had been fired. The foreman penciled in why -- "Will not work." People surprise us endlessly, but this did not sound like my Dad. Hard work was his calling. I suspect Fabian would amend the foreman's pink slip to read "Will not work FOR YOU."

Big construction companies were highly professional and had a reputation to maintain. Some of the smaller companies were unprofessional and indifferent to their reputation. In the 1960s, Fabian worked a summer for a redi-mix outfit that had difficulty paying its workers with checks that did not bounce. Friday afternoons, the employees raced to the bank to find out if their checks were rubber. Some mornings, the boss -- a woman in her 40s tough as any man -- called Fabian as he was finishing breakfast to say "Don't come in today. It's raining." Fabian, after a quick glance out the window, responded in exasperation "What? I am less than five miles from you, and there's not a cloud in sight." The boss finished the call with "I said it's raining" and hung up. Maybe she was closing her operation for the day to avoid creditors, maybe she found a stumblebum in need of a drink whom she could pay with a bottle of Four Roses to replace Fabian. He never found out, but such were his prevailing theories explaining the cloudburst enveloping the redi-mix plant.

Fabian was a big man, built like a pro football end who not only was strong but seemed to have limitless energy. He was capable of performing his share of the work and part of somebody else's. Trapping, which he pursued in the winter, required endless labor, and he was not deterred by physically daunting or painful tasks. Pain was an everyday component of the human condition for him. If your neck hurt from carrying a 75-pound pack along a wilderness trail, so be it.

He also was a strong personality and with strong opinions on labor relations, history, politics and religion. And he was a storyteller. I suspect some of his co-workers found his philosophizing and storytelling tiresome, but others enjoyed listening to him. "Hell Michael," one old hand told me "he was the only one among us who had read anything more than a newspaper. He had an education. I would invite him home just to listen to him."

But heavy-duty operators are not heavy duty forever. Time wore Fabian down -- as it does most of those who made construction or life in the woods a career. You can fight the boss, but you can't fight age and infirmity. As he grew older, Fabian was becoming deaf -- too much exposure to machinery noise -- and struggled to work 12 hours a day, six days a week. He died of a heart attack while on a job near Fairbanks in 1975. He was 58.

His co-workers were the last among the living to hear his voice.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com.

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