There’s a tiny hamlet located some forty miles south of Anchorage, Alaska that holds a special space in my heart. Girdwood is on the Seward Highway, directly across from the gray, silty waters of Turnagain Arm. It’s home to the world famous Alyeska Ski Resort. To some locals, the nickname for this place is “Girdweed.” Savvy readers will know what I’m referring to. Approximately two thousand residents live there.
The surrounding terrain is popular with hikers during summer months, and some higher mountain peaks never fully shed their snow and ice from winter. I was fortunate to work in Girdwood for several years.
The State of Alaska – Department of Transportation, has a shop on the outskirts of town where equipment is stored for road maintenance. I’d travel there several times a month to service and repair graders, snowplows, loaders, and smaller equipment. I always looked forward to going, making sure to pack a tasty lunch.
Most of the work was dirty and greasy, yet the beautiful drive from Anchorage and back more than made up for my pungent diesel fuel aroma. That odor clung to orange coveralls like an overdose of Brut cologne on a freshly shaved face.
It was common to spot Beluga whales searching for Hooligan in the salt water. Hooligan are a delicacy not only to whales but people as well. Dip nets are used on Twentymile River to capture them before they head upriver to spawn. This glacier fed river is about twenty miles south of Girdwood thus the name.
Dall sheep posturing along the roadway for photos are seen, along with timid black bears scurrying across soggy tundra near the Girdwood shop. Eagles, either flying or perched on rocks, moose, and birds of all type hung around most of the year.
Just recently, a friend sent me a hiring announcement for three operator positions at the Girdwood DOT facility. That’s unheard of, because back in the day when people actually wanted to work, getting hired there took patience. Some guys never left unless they physically or medically had to.
Thinking back to these always welcome road trips, I recall above everything else, taking breaks or eating lunch with the guys. This was if they were still in the shop, as most of the time the crew was out doing road repairs. We’d talk cars, trucks, motorcycles, snowmobiles, boats, hunting, fishing, along with the normal everyday shop talk. It’s surreal that no one’s left from that group other than five: Andy Hibbs, Doug Webster, Drew Motsinger, Dick Redman, and me. Sadly, a good many have now left this world. I considered all of them friends.
Larry Bushnell was an equipment operator before becoming shop foreman. He was a state employee for thirty-eight years. It was only one year after leaving state service that he had a massive heart attack and died. That was 2014. Larry was operating a personal backhoe when it happened.
Pat Vail passed four years earlier from a longtime illness. It was suspected that his Parkinson’s disease came from being subjected to agent orange during the Vietnam War. I have another pal that fought over there and came down with the same affliction.
Rob Hammel was helping a lady get her vehicle unstuck on the Seward Highway one winter, when a car slid out of control and struck him. He died instantly. I often saw Rob at art exhibits where we both shared a love for Alaskan wildlife pictures. He was looking forward to retirement.
Terry Onslow succumbed to complications from pneumonia not long after retiring. Terry was in charge of avalanche control and very knowledgeable in this area. His radio moniker was Avalanche One. I jokingly called him, “Avalanche Juan.”
Leif Loberg enjoyed his “freedom” for twelve years before an illness took him down. A veteran mechanic once candidly told the good-natured man, “Leif it alone!” This was after Loberg started to take a partially repaired loader from the shop. After that, everyone used the comical phrase including Leif.
I swapped tales with all of these guys during my DOT tenure. I still vividly remember some of them, especially one story regarding a huge, seventy-pound king salmon caught by Pat Vail.
If I was younger, I’d happily take one of those three open jobs. There’s no better place to work than Girdwood. Undoubtedly, some mechanics and road maintenance personnel in Lake Havasu City would argue the point. Girdwood and this community share similar traits. Both lie in picturesque settings surrounded by pristine water and rugged mountains. Working in Arizona’s summer heat can be brutal while the same can be said for subzero Alaskan winters.
Shop talk here is probably much the same during breaks and lunch as it was in Girdwood back in the day. Some guy or gal bragging about a huge striper or bass reeled in from Lake Havasu being an example. The stories would all be similar except for one major part. It’d be impossible to top Pat Vail’s story regarding that massive salmon. When fish stories end up in the workplace, Alaska will always come out on top!
One thought on “SHOP TALK”
Nice bait. Where’s the fish he caught? 🙂