Glacier City Gazette | “For Whom the Beeper Beeps”
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“For Whom the Beeper Beeps”

Emptying Alyeska's sewage tank many years ago.

“For Whom the Beeper Beeps”

By John Gallup
Special to the Glacier City Gazette

Originally published in October 1993 in the Local News.

N.B. – anybody under 30 may not know what a beeper is. Before cell phones, professionals carried around a small device on their belts or pockets, which summoned them to check their phone messages. The title, of course is a bastardization of the title of the great novel For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemmingway, who borrowed it from John Donne, a 17th century English poet.

On the wall of the back room of the old Ski Patrol station at the sundeck (right next to the jar of screws which Don Haglund used to hold the world together) was a small beeper alarm.

Now doctors, attorneys and pimps all have beepers, which allow them to conduct business efficiently and to which they responded with alacrity. The one at the sundeck also was responded to immediately – like a Bat Signal sent up in distress, this little beeper was a call for urgent action.

And it always beeped for me.

I actually never heard it myself, you understand, but whoever did hear it unfailingly picked up the phone or the radio, discovered my whereabouts and let me have the news: the time had come. Certain tasks can be put off; this was not one of them. The sundeck sewage tank was full.

Over the years the job of bringing down the mountain what thousands of bladders and bowels had taken up had been done haphazardly, and I decided along about 1978 that it was easier to just do it myself, learn how to do it right and avoid all of the sniveling and whining that occurred every time I asked someone else to do it.

Everybody’s memory seemed to go blank when I inquired around as to how best to do the job. Employee turnover managed to export most of our learning every year, and 1977-78 was particularly tough because it was the first year A.D. (After Don) when three or four of us were trying to figure out how to do what Don Conrad had for years done on his own.

The ‘buckets on the lift” system was made obsolete with the restaurant addition to the sundeck in 1975, and they had begun taking the sewage down in a 300-gallon tank on the back of the (then new) Tucker snowcat. I inherited this system.

I would load the tank in the bed of the Tucker, chain it down, head up the mountain to the sundeck, and back the Tucker around to the north side of the roundhouse. A patroller had usually gotten out the pump, which perched on the porch maybe 20 feet above the cat. The pump required priming to work, which was a royal pain. If you were lucky, the pump would pick up the “fluid” and the output hose would start twitching like the aorta from hell, and the goods would start to flow.

I would then scamper down to the cat and peer into the top of the tank (having a cold was always helpful here) and watch the level rise. At a carefully calculated moment, I would signal the patroller to shut the pump off, or run upstairs quickly to shut it off myself. Any miscalculation or miscommunication here yielded predictable results.

The next step involved lumbering down the mountain with the grossly overloaded Tucker. As you clattered by the skiers, they would look on with interest until their noses tipped them off to the cargo involved. Then you suffered shouted derision and jokes about “corn snow.”

At the bottom, after posing for pictures with the discharge hose stuck into the window of the boss’ car, the cargo was loosed into the hopelessly overloaded septic system and promptly resurfaced in the employee parking lot. This part of the job got a lot easier in 1980 with the completion of Girdwood’s sewer system – just flip a manhole cover and stand back!

But the Resort continued to grow, and the Tucker system became like trying to drain a lake with a teacup. In 1981 we upgraded the sewer system at the sundeck with the installation of “The Chocolate Factory.” The Factory was a huge steel tank with aerator pumps, the size of an average employee cabin, which was supposed to be fully automatic, get rid of the smell, and make the cat operator’s job (read my job – I still couldn’t foist it off on anyone) a piece of cake.

Anyone who went to the john at the sundeck during the 1980s knows how well we succeeded on the smell issue. Only once were we able to get the right combination and get rid of the smell, and in that case we were too successful, and the whole thing foamed up and ran over. The stuff didn’t smell too bad, which was good, because it was stuck to everything. (It was this episode that lent the Factory its name – out restaurant manager Barry Stover opened the door to check on it and was assaulted by a sea of brown foam.)

The Chocolate Factory remained everybody’s stepchild, overseen by Barry, myself, and Rodney Wycoff (our electrician, who was needed to keep the finicky pumps online and who was the only other employee resolute enough to enter the Factory.) We just did our best to minimize the smell and pumped it out whenever the weather ley us get caught up grooming and we could free up one of our two working cats, with which towed a much larger tank mounted on a tracked trailer.

This tank was the source of my most embarrassing moment in my 16-year tenure at Alyeska. When it was full, the trailer exerted a great deal of down pressure on the snow, and threatened to punch through to the softer snow underneath at any moment. A trip down the Bowl with that bad boy in tow was an adrenaline-filled creep, eyes riveted to the rear-view mirrors, as the tank and trailer lurched to within inches of the critical angle. I took my eyes off the tank for just a second to check where I was going (a reasonable move, I thought, since the hill was full of skiers) and at that moment, the thing dug in, turned turtle and dragged the cat around to a stop – right in the middle of Ego Flats.

I reacted with my usual cool aplomb to this event and ran madly around to the trailer to attempt to stem the flow from the vent on the tank. This was my second mistake and insured that I shared the fate of the surrounding snow.

At this point, there wasn’t much I could to but redirect skiers, shake my head and wait for help. Of course the scene drew a crowd, and the inevitable camera appeared to fully document everything (thanks Reid). To insure that it wasn’t forgotten anytime soon, Tom Wilson set the event to music (thanks, Tom.) We finally got most of our running equipment up to the Bowl and righted the beast. Suffice it to say that I finally got to the base with much less than I started with, measured in gallons, pride and serviceable outerwear. I would note, however, that the wildflowers were particularly nice on that part of the mountain during the following summer.

It looks like the glory days of sludge hauling are finally behind us. The beeper and the wall which held it are gone. The Chocolate Factory awaits dismantling or perhaps conversion into something more useful (bulletproof employee housing?) Sure enough, though, some future Resort employee will probably feel sorry for him or herself when he or she has to turn a valve and perhaps smell something that ain’t exactly roses.

This essay’s purpose it to tell that person, “Hey it could be worse.”

Emptying Alyeska's sewage tank many years ago.

Emptying Alyeska’s sewage tank many years ago.