Illustration of a pipe fitter and pipes by Gianpardo Pagni

Pipe Dreams

What have these tough economic times taught about finding a balance between family and work? A student reflects on her father's work in the Alaskan oil fields during the recession of the mid 2000s.

In the northernmost region of the United States, 250 miles above the Arctic Circle, a man stands alone in a makeshift laundry room, folding his clothes into tired lumps. Good enough. No one here will notice if his clothes are wrinkled, anyway. Ken Thurman, approaching 60 years old, worked 12 hours building arctic drilling rigs today, and the day before that, and he will again tomorrow. Up in the Prudhoe Bay oil field, most everyone works 12 hours a day, seven days a week. “You work, you eat, you sleep. That’s all you have time for,” Ken says. He misses his wife. And his kids. And his bed.

Every few months, he takes about three weeks off to rest up and see his family. If the rig contractors are pushing a deadline, it’s less, and minus the three or four days it takes to travel home to Oregon and back. Just as he starts adjusting to normal life again, settling into “husband” and “dad,” he gets called back to work. “Sometimes I think it’d be easier if he didn’t come home on short breaks. We’re always having to say goodbye,” says his wife, Mona... my mother.

This lifestyle is habitual for the several thousand men and few women who work on Alaska’s North Slope. Between 2011 and 2013, my dad left my family many times for the frigid, silvery landscape of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Tours combined, he spent about a year and a half living out of a suitcase, 2,000 miles out of our reach, in order to pay the bills, whittle down some debt, and try to save a little money for an uncertain retirement. When he goes up to the Slope it’s because there are few other options.

“The only reason anyone goes up there is for the money. It’s a unique place, but it gets old fast.”

The construction industry was one of those worst affected by the recent recession. Approximately two million American construction workers lost their jobs in the aftermath. In our home state of Oregon, construction workers were the first to be hit and the slowest to recover, losing more than 38,000 jobs by 2010. That’s a 36 percent unemployment rate—higher than any other industry in the state. For comparison, the national rate peaked at 27 percent. Though unemployment has recently eased down closer to prerecession levels, many workers are now trying to make up for the losses suffered and debt accrued over the past few years. To make ends meet, tradesmen like my dad have to go where the work is. Their health and personal lives come second.

Since he was in his 20s, my dad has worked as a journeyman pipefitter. No one knows what the hell that means. I didn’t know what it meant until one day, in my own early 20s, I made it a point to ask him about it until I understood. You know all of those giant, twisting, Windows-95-screensaver-esque pipes that run through the walls and ceilings and floors of hospitals, or arenas, or other large structures? My dad installs and puts those together. It’s a lot of geometry and technical planning and other things you and I are poor at. On the North Slope, Big Oil commissions specialized drilling rigs from Parker Drilling, and Parker Drilling hires tradesmen like my dad to build them. Then, once completed, the drilling rigs are used to make a small number of men—not my dad—very, very rich.

When dad first got a job working for Parker up in Alaska, my mom, my brother, and I all bought winter coats and planned for a family trip to visit him in mysterious, exciting Prudhoe Bay. I mean, Alaska, right? Trees, mountains, wildlife . . . nature, in all her glory! That trip never happened. We soon learned that Prudhoe Bay is not an idyllic frontier wilderness, but flat and pocked with watery holes, with no trees or mountains to speak of, and an annual average high temperature of 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Look up “Prudhoe Bay, Alaska,” on Google Maps. It’s not a place for humans.

My family falls into a routine when my dad goes to work on the Slope. We all convince ourselves that it’s not that bad, that a few months isn’t very long. We try to get used to dad not being home to help with homework, or fix a leaky faucet, or eat at the dinner table. It’s rough to get him back just to watch him leave again a few weeks later. It makes us miss him harder, and we have to emotionally detach ourselves all over again. My mom cries each time he flies out. Seeing him go never gets easier.

It didn’t used to be like this. When I was a teenager, before the housing market plummeted and took the rest of us with it, my dad’s farthest commute was two hours and he was home every night. The economy went belly-up, and the calls from construction companies looking for industrial pipefitters vanished. When my dad gets wind of work now, it’s almost always an out-of-state job.

It’s a job that involves travel and fat paychecks, but working on the North Slope isn’t glamorous. In return for good pay, it takes a weighty toll. Living in heavily regulated man camps and working 80-hour weeks, laborers there are surrounded by empty tundra too far north for trees to grow. Many force emotional disengagement for weeks or months to survive the loneliness and the monotony of a work-eat-sleep routine. With a hoarse and tired voice, my dad reveals to me that the isolation up there is stifling. When I ask why he goes, he replies candidly with one word: money. “The only reason anyone goes up there is for the money. It’s a unique place,” he says. “But it gets old fast.”

My dad’s long work hours are what allowed me to go to college. I dreamed of applying to Stanford, UC Berkeley, and Oxford. I chose the University of Oregon because I knew it would give me an excellent education for in-state tuition prices. My first degree was in history and, a nerd at heart, I went back for another. This time, I’m getting a bachelor’s in journalism from the UO’s School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC), which turned out to be one of the best J schools in the country. Learning is my favorite pastime, and I collect education like some people collect art or rare coins. I’ve never felt so inspired and excited about the world as I did at the SOJC.

I had to make college count. I was acutely aware that my dad was working, far away from home, to pay for it. I weighed each dollar I spent against dad’s time.

Of all the things worth learning about, people are the most fascinating. With a budding career resting on history and journalism degrees, I’ve dedicated my life to trying to figure out and describe who we are and why we do the things we do. For years now, I’ve watched the small struggles my parents, my brother, and I experience while my dad is working far away, and realized that thousands of other families are going through the same worry and heartache and disillusionment.

During one of my dad’s tours on the Slope, my mom had a breast cancer scare. She went in for a routine mammogram and the doctors came out ordering a second mammogram, then an ultrasound, and finally an MRI. She didn’t tell anyone until after the results came back negative for cancer. She didn’t want to put that burden on her kids, and dad was working in Alaska, where he’d have to sit and worry, unable to do anything about it. It takes days to get clearance for flights off the Slope. He can’t just hop on a plane and come home whenever he’s needed. However, my mom says the toughest part of my dad working far from home isn’t having to do things on her own, but the lack of intimacy. “There’s no one there every day to just talk to or touch. I didn’t realize how important touch is until he was gone. I can’t just give him a hug or feel his hand in mine when I need to.”

I knew my parents couldn’t afford to help me pay to go to the UO a second time, so I put myself through school to get my journalism degree. My little brother, Kenny, is 10 years my junior and getting ready to enter college. My folks have his tuition payments to worry about now. While I was studying history, during my first round of college, I worked part-time and took out the maximum allowed me in student loans each year. My parents shouldered the rest of my expenses. They never once let on that it was a burden—they were always proud and happy to do it—but deep inside, I felt a constant anxiety. I had to make college count. I was acutely aware that my dad was working, far away from home, to pay for it. I weighed each dollar I spent against dad’s time.

I watched myself turn into a workaholic. I saw my father in me. The idea that putting in my time and working hard will lead to an adventurous career intoxicates me and can be all-consuming. I try to quell the inner addict, reverse the metamorphosis, but I still find myself pulling 15-hour days and neglecting those I love because I “have to get work done.” I don’t want to be that person. My father hates being away, and has warned me not to make the same mistake. Yet, despite different methods, my dad and I keep getting the same result: too much work and little time left over for the important stuff in life. I am so dedicated to the pursuit of a happy work life that I’ll get two degrees from the UO, both aimed at jobs I love and neither of which promises a stable income. More than anyone else, Dad gave me the conviction to follow my heart and not the money.

Our family’s struggle is not unique. We are just one of thousands of American working-class families facing a rocky financial reality and insecure future, with a long-distance parent on indefinite hold, relying on the next faraway job to show up and pull us through. We’re navigating a stormy economic sea and trying to keep our heads above the surface.

This summer, I’m heading to Alaska for work myself. But my experience there will be a far cry from my dad’s. I’m going for the love of journalism, to gather and tell important stories—to practice the craft I learned and refined in college. I’ll be on the southern Alaska coast, a place bathed in wildlife and natural beauty and no sign of the dreariness and detachment that outlines the North Slope. Dad’s sacrifices in Alaska have allowed for my own journey there to do the work I love.

Jessica Hollowell Thurman '10 is a filmmaker and writer based in the Pacific Northwest. Currently, she is completing the final term of her journalism degree, working on three films, and reporting on climate change, salmon and life in Cordova, Alaska.