Eagle Keepers

by TJ
(on the edge)

The Grand Old Dame

The Grand Old Dame

December 2016


I’ve been driving the same truck, going on 33 years now, ’84 EXHD 359 Pete. I love the old truck and the "Grand Old Dame" has been a good horse for me through thick and thin and almost seems like another member of the family now.

When you literally “grow-up” sitting in the same cab for that many years and see everything from death, -60F and the insanely hilarious, all from the same chair, a bond does form between man and machine. In essence the truck is more than the sum of her parts. The same has been said of R.M.S. Olympic, Mauretania and a few Boeing B-17s – it’s hard to explain.

For 28 years I pulled belly-dump with the truck, working the construction trade here in Alaska. It’s a tough racket but if you’re careful with your equipment, you can do alright at it – better than "working" for a living, I always say.

On most construction jobs the excavating and then refill of pit-run gravel are the hard parts of our work. These two phases of the job are when you’re going to tear stuff up, not always – but it isn’t uncommon either. Differentials, U-joints and so on.

I’m fortunate, my old truck has big frame rails, low gear ratio and big rear-ends so what will break some trucks is usually nothing more than a nuisance to my truck – she’s sure as hell not a battleship, but she’s built like one.

After the pit-run gravel goes in and compaction takes place, we then spread a covering of D-1 gravel (the finer stuff) which is gravy work for us because D-1 flows out of the trucks like icing on a cake. Spreading D-1 is usually more laid-back too , because the “hard parts” of the job are completed now and the contractor usually knows that the job is on schedule by then. Everyone is usually a happy camper during the D-1 work, including the blade-men because now they can really practice their craft and make everything look nice.

The next phase of the job is paving. Paving is like Christmas for us, on most jobs, because everything is in slow motion on the job now. The contractor wants the work be perfect and usually the State inspectors are right there to see that it is perfect. Paving is where “it all comes together.” During a typical paving job it isn’t uncommon for a truck to haul four loads and make $1000 a day , travelling in very small circles.

Paving makes up for a lot of the fuel costs and breakage which may have occurred during the excavation and pit-run hauling phases on the tough jobs. On many paving jobs the trucks sit for the majority of the time, at the paver, waiting to dump, or at the hot plant, waiting for a load.

Production can be slowed during paving for many reasons. During a typical paving operation there are many pieces of equipment and people all congregated in the same general area - the paving crew, State inspectors, fog-line stripers, foremen and sometimes even local T.V. News crews. With this many warm bodies and heavy machines all in the same place, the whole job is then put into “slow motion” at this phase because of the congestion and safety concerns.

- The people on the ground have their minds on the expensive hot mix that’s being laid down – they’re not watching out for trucks and may walk right out in front of you, so it’s all ahead SLOW!

After paving is completed the contractor can then move on to the next project, so whichever paving job that we may currently be on, that work must get done right regardless of how long it takes.

We no longer excavate with belly-dumps in Alaska, here, the “Side – Dump” has taken over most phases of our work, except for paving, which the belly-dump is still favored by most contractors because of the belly-dump’s consistent windrow capability when dumping in front of a paver that is equipped with a pick-up machine, this saves the contractor a lot of time as well as being a convenience for the paving crew.

There are summers where all we seem to do is pave and those are money years for us. I remember one such summer we were paving on JBER Base here in Anchorage (Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson) it wasn’t called that then, it was just Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson.

“Eagle Keepers” on JBER is where some of the F-15 Eagles in Alaska were (are) kept and this particular summer we were doing a massive overlay on the Eagle Keepers taxi ways, it was a sweet job. Incidentally, the asphalt in your typical suburban drive-way isn’t the same as the asphalt we lay down for fighter aircraft. The stuff we put down for Military aircraft is the really good stuff and the cost of that asphalt is phenomenal.

It really is a novel moment for a Military aircraft enthusiast, like me, to be sitting in a line of trucks, waiting to dump a load of mix and have a $40 million dollar fighter aircraft taxi by. I remember the fighter pilots and I would give a curt nod to each other as they would slowly roll by on their way to the take-off apron of the runway.

Each week, during this particular job, a different Air Force Company would set up a Bar-B-Q right outside the gate of Eagle Keepers and the Air Force guys would have a nice lunch of hamburgers and hotdogs. These weren’t the actual Fast-Movers or “fly-guys” themselves but instead the mechanics, ground crews and so on.

That Alaskan summer was sunny and hot and each time we’d roll through the gate of Eagle Keepers with our loaded trucks we were able to see the paving machine and how many trucks were stacked up waiting to dump their loads. If we were lucky, there would be a bunch of trucks waiting to unload which meant we could stop outside the gate and jump out to rub elbows with the Air Force guys for a few minutes and get a cold Pepsi.

The Air Force guys turned out to be a great bunch of very talented and devoted young men serving their Country. They would ask me about trucks and I would ask them about airplanes – and we truckers couldn’t buy a hamburger from those guys either. This all took place just before the Berlin wall came down, and the Cold War was still very hot in some ways.

One day as I was eating a hamburger outside the gate of Eagle Keepers and watching the line of trucks at the paver, I decide to have some fun with one the young Air Force guys. I’d talked with him several times over the weeks during the course of the job and he knew that I was an aircraft buff. I motioned him aside this day and said

“Listen, I know about the cat and mouse games between our F-15s and the Russian MiGs and how they taunt and push each other around, a little bit, testing each other’s boundaries and nerves when they’re over the Beaufort Sea and out of sight from the real world.”

This was actually common knowledge as our local T.V. News Agencies had reported that the pilots had actually been told by their CO’s to “Cool it” a time or two, in regard to some of the “exploits” that were apparently taking place between the Soviet and American fighter pilots over desolate parts of the sea and away from the public eye.

I then continued with

“Just between you and me, what happens when those cowboys leave here on full after-burner and head North? What really happens?"

I asked.

I watched a slow smile come across the young man’s face as I saw my own reflection in his sunglasses. Knowing that I was yanking his chain a bit, he answered me with

“Two things dude. Number one, I can’t tell you. Number two – you’d never believe it anyway.”

We shared a good laugh together over that answer and finished our lunch with the rest of the crew. The Eagle Keepers job was eventually finished and we moved on to our next job, whatever it was, more than likely another paving job – I don’t remember now.

The F-15 Eagle was of course, later replaced by the F-22 Raptor and the technicians themselves , more than likely are retired and working in the private sector or are career Military and senior in Rank by now.

Eagle Keepers was one of the best jobs I’ve ever been on. We made a lot of money paving those taxi ways and we had a lot of fun doing it.

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like Top Gun
by: Clara Wilson

Like watching Top Gun all over. Awesome story. Enjoyed it !

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