I liked Dick the Cook. I never knew his last name. To me his real name was always "Dick the Cook" and and none of us ever referred to him any other way. He had an air of grandeur about him; it did not come so much from his own sense of importance, but simply from the fact that he was the cook. As such, he was one of the most important people in Umiat. Everyone recognized him.and wanted to know him. "Hi, Cookie," they'd say entering the mess hall, " What's for dinner?" Dick the Cook would recite that night's menu, invariably receiving "oohs" and "ahhs" from the crowd lining up for chow. Wednesday night was roast beef night, complete with horseradish sauce and "au jus," pronounced "oh juice." The correct question in any chow line in wilderness Alaska was, and still is: "Would you like some oh juice with that?" Dick the Cook delighted in ladling the thin gravy onto the plate of a grateful recipient. 

Friday was fish night, usually fresh salmon flown up from the Yukon or Prince William Sound. On hot evenings, the salmon was cooked outside on large grill-like affairs made out of 55-gallon drums split in half. Sunday was steak night, with steak grilled to order. The steak inevitably covered the large plate it was flopped onto. Steak and roast beef were accompanied by baked potatoes, onion rings, mushrooms, and large stalks of fresh broccoli. Dessert was always delectable. Dick the Cook was not a pastry chef, as some cooks at other remote camps were. But, he made something called brownie pudding cake that is recalled reverently by anyone who had the great fortune to inhale it. You stuck a fork into a large brownie to discover the center was mostly liquid chocolate. Pudding cake was always served warm. With a scoop of vanilla ice cream, you forgot you missed home.

It was the "law of the land" that you ate well in the field. There wasn't much to do, so food was always a major topic of conversation.  If a cook were not talented, he or she did not last in the bush. Dick the Cook's talents were rewarded at the end of every meal with that compliment of compliments, "good grub, Cookie."  This phrase spoke even more highly than a belch, which was a compliment in its own right.

 Dick the Cook was on the short side, with jet black hair, usually uncombed, and clear blue eyes. His hands were always immaculate, despite the fact that he handled grease all day long. He dressed  in white pants and a white T-shirt with an open pack of Pall Malls bulding from its pocket. He smoked when he cooked,  the cigarette dangling from his mouth while he cut the vegetables or stirred the gravy.  Once in awhile, he'd lay the butt on the window ledge in between puffs. He didn't have an ashtray.

            A grease spotted white apron was usually wrapped around his middle. I watched him fling one into a pile at the back of the kitchen after lunch one day. He changed his apron at least twice a day. When he wasn't cooking, he was washing laundry. It was dirty, greasy work, and he had a certain cleanly appearance to uphold. 

He was from Oregon, growing up around tall trees. I asked him once how long it had taken him to get used to the treeless tundra. "Oh, at first it was odd," he mused in his baritonevoice, as yet unaffected by the Pall Malls, "but I've been up here for so long that now it's the trees that seem strange, kind of claustrophobic, when I go home." How long had it been since he'd been home, I asked. Dick the Cook couldn't say precisely, but it was on the order of 16 months. I was incredulous. "The money's good up here," he exclaimed. "But," I asked, "isn't it boring up here in the winter and cold?" "Cold, yes; boring, no. Winter's when all the seismic exploration takes place. Umiat is jumping all the time."

 "The thing is," he continued, "GSI and all the other seismic companies can't take their cat trains out in the summer because they'd sink in the tundra. They wait until everything is frozen solid, assemble their 'caravans,' and head out, testing the ground with some kind of remote sensing rechnology as they go But, as careful as they are, you can still see their track someplaces out here in the tundra because the equipment is so heavy. The tundra doesn't really recover; it doesn't bounce back. So, the tracks fill with water, freeze up again in the winter, and then thaw again next summer, getting bigger. They'll come up with something less damaging one day, but, that's what it is; that's what you see out there, those tracks." I'd noticed tracks of huge vehicles out in the bush, usually in low, boggy areas. There weren't that many, but the ones that were out there scarred the green tundra by filling with brackish brown water. I asked several more questions, then let Dick the Cook return to the tasks at hand, while I picked up my book again. 

I spent most of that rotation in Umiat ensconced in the mess hall, enjoying the creature comforts of 'home,' and hanging around talking to my new friend. I learned that his girlfriend was not his kids' mother. His wife had been killed in a fishing accident eight years earlier during a vacation out of Seward. It had been hard on him and the girls for a very long time and he had blamed himself. For awhile, they had lived in Anchorage and Dick the Cook had worked in restaurants in town. When he found Sheree on a trip to his home town in Oregon, he fell in love with her, she with him, and the girls with her also. But, the money was up north, a place not suitable for families - no schools, no health clinic, bad company. The girls moved back to Oregon to live with Sheree in a little house bought with North Slope wages. There the girls had school, friends, a dog named Pete. Sheree worked in the library and went to PTA meetings. All they needed was for Dick the Cook to save just a little more money, get the Slope out of his system and settle down with them again.

 "Why don't you marry her?" I asked out of fascination with this story. Dick the Cook paused. "I lost one wife. Maybe if I don't marry her, she won't leave me like Donna did and the girls and I  won't be alone again" I was taken aback with this level of honesty and emotion. His feelings didn't make sense, but then again, they did. I formed a bond with Dick the Cook that day, and began to develop a friendship with him that lasted throughout the summer."