Friday, April 19, 2013

Summer of '49



The summer of 1949 was the great live-it-up, throw-it-away, there’s-no-tomorrow summer. It was the summer before my senior year at Hood and my father was already on a construction job for the Frederick Snare Company at the neighboring Sinclair Camp in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela. My mother was waiting to join him in this new spot and I was going to be on my own and work again in the Industrial Relations Department of Mene Grande Oil Company where I had worked the summer before at another oil camp.


I arrived on a Saturday, tired after the long flight – DC to Miami – then hours down to Venezuela – Miaquetia Airport to San Tome and Puerto La Cruz, or Port as we called it. I was met by Hal Swenson, my boss of the previous year. I was to stay with him and his wife for awhile, until I settled in, but after a day or so of gracious but slightly complaining Mildred, who dreamed of better things and spoiled their daughter Sally, I opted for a bedroom in the single woman’s quarters. The housemate there was Beatrice Grimes, an unmarried secretary of indeterminate age. She had grown up in various countries, then became a Latin American-Proper Bostonian. She spoke in hushed tones and kept to herself rather than soil herself with the tool-pushers and lesser office staff. She had some of her own things there which made the living room area more gracious, and instead of going to the hearty meals served at the mess hall she had a few genteel bourbon and waters and cream cheese sandwiches at lunch.

I settled in the second bedroom and on Monday morning was ready to go to work again on a typewriter in the IR Department at Mene Grande (read: Gulf Oil). One or two of the people I had worked with the summer before were here at the Port office – Juan Lujan, a funny, gentle bear from New Mexico, and of course Hal Sevenson, pleasant but rather remote. Other company workers were Frank Skillman, nice looking and efficient, Carlos Sierra, short busy bee Venezuelan with a sense of humor. The local staff were nice kids, married and unmarried who lived in South Camp, euphemism for the less elegant compound reserved Venezuelan office and field workers. We were, of course, in North Camp. It was with the South Camp workers that I practiced my Spanish. They, in turn, amused me with slightly malicious, highly accurate opinions and bits of gossip about other staff. One young man brought in homemade arepas still hot from the oven. These were a slightly heavy, delicious mix between bread, bagels and corn muffins, served with a wedge of white queso de mano or bland goat cheese – ambrosia. One little girl wanted me to go bike riding with her after work. I had to draw the line there and stop being too pally. Besides, I much preferred the Club and what I discovered to be the ratio of ten men for every woman in the camp.

Because of the heat our workday started at seven – up in the relatively cool morning, as much or as little breakfast as you preferred at the mess hall (I can taste the papaya and lime) and on to the non-air conditioned offices to settle labor disputes, check people out of jail, handle death benefits to families of workers killed at the rigs. I can see one poor widow in my mind – black hat with veil, black dress with long sleeves in spite of the heat, black stockings and shoes: her garb now until (and if) she remarried.


At noon we repaired again to the mess hall for more good food and then we had a siesta, a rest nap  or whatever until we returned for the afternoon work session. We were let out at four to go home and rinse off and go to the club to visit and drink until supper, then more drinking and movies, if it was movie night, dancing on Saturdays. It was out home away from home.

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