The first time Warren Sanders heard Wolverton Mountain by Claude King, he was already two thirds of the way down Route 66 to St. Louis. He was driving his young family to visit his mother. Everyone else was asleep. There was a misty rain, and the car was running very well. Smooth just like the song, he thought. He loved this time of quiet when they traveled. He could hear the others breathing rhythmically, and he found it comforting.
Warren hummed along with the song. His mood was light. There was good news to share with his mother. He just got a minor promotion at work—less than one year into the job! He was moving from the General Service Department to the “Mechanicians Group”. This was a new collection of what the boss called thinking workers. The scientists, at the oil company research facility, wanted a team of talent that called for mechanics and technicians, so they created the hybrid gang of workers. Guys that liked to think “outside the box”. Workers they could give a raw sketch of an idea, for an apparatus to conduct an experiment, and the guys would be able to make it happen
This quicker method, without a lot of measurements and technical drawings, would give them significantly more flexibility. They hoped to increase the number of experiments they could accomplish in one year. The oil fields of Alaska were just opening-up with serious production. They were working on ways to improve the yield with new by-products.
In addition, the new crude was heavier, and required more processing, than the crude they knew best. There was a great deal of competition among the various companies to find more ways to make the new crude more profitable. Transporting the crude from so far away in harsh conditions would make costs rise. If they could find more ways to efficiently use the oil, they could better justify the costs, and boost profits.
Warren knew about the oil find in Alaska. In fact, they first offered to transfer him and the family to Alaska. There was going to be a major pipeline built. The work would be tough but very lucrative for anyone willing to go. He had been so excited about it when he discussed it with his wife. The feds were offering homestead land up there. They could be modern day pioneers.
They had talked about it seriously for two days. The company would pay all the moving expenses. The family would have enough money with the help of the credit union to build a modest house. The job would entail flying into the bush for four to six weeks of long hours, and then, home for a similar time period. The men would be gone, and unable to return, unless there was an extreme emergency. The pay would be more than double the current salary.
After the initial conversations, Warren let the topic lay between them. Each read parts of the books Warren brought home from work. Mary Ellen spent a day at the library to find any information she could. She had never been further away from Chicago than Arkansas. The prospect of being so far away from relatives and friends was daunting.
Warren was not a large man, he only stood five-and-one-half-feet tall. He was slim, but powerful. He liked to say he was “wiry”. He had been a Marine during WWII and kept himself fit. He had the confidence of a man that knows himself and is acquainted with the world. He grew up in the poverty of the Depression, as the only child of a couple that married “late in life”, which, for Southern Missouri, meant that his parents were both over thirty. Warren’s father died in an accident when he was thirteen. By the time he was fourteen, he had quit school, and was the full-time breadwinner for himself, and his mother. He ran with a tough crowd of young men, but, somehow he managed to stay out of trouble with the law, and employed full time.
Warren had rugged good looks, but he was not objectively a handsome man. His cheekbones, and nose looked vaguely Native American, especially in the middle of the summer when he was tan. He smoked like a chimney sometimes, and other times he went weeks without a smoke. He rarely drank, and never gambled. He said he was afraid to not have control over himself. He was quick-witted, and his sense of humor was pleasant. He read constantly. There were all kinds of books, but he loved history the best.
Mary Ellen was a shapely woman with very dark hair, and somewhat exotic looks. Her complexion was olive toned, and smooth. She was a talented seamstress, and applied those skills to keeping herself, and the children in fashionable attire. She, too, had been raised in the Depression. Her household that was fortunate enough to always have one parent working. Her father was a railroad switchman, and her mother an operator for the telephone company.
Mary Ellen was a sensitive, serious person. She had a strong faith, and she adored Warren. He was funny, gentle, and had the southern-gentleman-manners that, as a package, was hard to resist. They had married when she was twenty-one. Children did not come for five years. This wait, while it made her ache for a family, gave the two of them time to know each other as friends, as well as lovers. Mary Ellen was delighted that Warren was doing so well at work, but she had serious reservations about Alaska.
As the song was finishing, Mary Ellen woke-up. Warren told her they still had an hour left on the road.
“Honey, I have been thinking about the transfer offer.” Mary Ellen said.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t agree it was a good idea. Without any kindergarten in town, I was doing all kinds of kindergarten things at home with the kids. It worked out okay, but I don’t feel ready to homeschool the kids. I just keep thinking about all that snow and cold. Being without indoor plumbing and snowbound. My God, it’s scary.” She reached across the front seat, and squeezed his hand.
“I don’t want you to think that you made the decision not to go. It was our decision. I know I made it sound exciting—and I think it would be a wonderful experience. Our kids would be different, raised up there. But, and this is a big BUT, I was not comfortable being gone for that long of a time. We have no idea what communication is like up there, really. Short wave? Letters? I don’t think telephone would be reliable. If you guys were in trouble, I couldn’t get to you to help. The idea drove me nuts!” He shivered a little at the thought. “It isn’t a matter that I think you can’t handle it alone, you’re very capable. But I would be beside myself.”
He sighed, “No, we made the right decision. I am confident of that. We both thought it would be an adventure worth having, but the risks outweigh the benefits. Let’s not forget how the idea made us feel. Let’s keep our eyes open for different adventures. I thought we could take a camping trip this summer—you know, tent and sleeping bags. It’s a cheaper way to travel, and I think the kids would enjoy it.”
“I like it.” Mary Ellen said. “If it works out well, we could save up, and go to California, or to Washington D.C. Yes, I think it’s a good idea.” Mary Ellen paused. “You were listening to a song and humming when I woke up. What was it about? I don’t care too much for the twang-twang those Country and Western songs have.”
“Oh, it was a funny little song, that made me think of my bachelor honkey-tonk days. It’s about finding and protecting the one you love.” He smiled. ”I’m going to pull in here for gas. I don’t want to arrive with the tank all but empty. You can go back to sleep, if you want, Mary Ellen, I’m fine. You know I just love to drive.”
“Okay.” Mary Ellen yawned, “ you don’t have to ask me twice.” She closed her eyes.
As Warren finished the last fifty miles of the trip, he thought about Alaska. He was content with the decision and he was glad they agreed to look for adventure. He looked at Mary Ellen and thought of the sleeping children in the back seat. Honkey-tonk days have their place, but this was really the ordinary adventure he wanted to protect.