Monday, January 26, 2009

Political Insights at 30 Below Zero

Barrow, AK Pepe's Restaurant

The morning of Barack Obama’s inauguration, I woke up on the North Slope of Alaska. Despite long days of travel to get to Barrow, my Eastern Standard Time body clock had me up at 4:00 am Alaska time. Settling down with some work and flipping on the television, I immediately saw an email announcing that the inauguration would be streamed into my company’s Board Room for anyone who wanted to watch and then heard Matt Lauer on TV speculating on when the Obamas would appear and get events rolling. I could feel the cynicism creeping in. A historic day.  A once in a life time event and I’m thousands of miles away from it all, literally at the end of the earth. 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle, out of touch, not even cell phone service and busy with work. Having a job that involves travel means you miss a lot of stuff and it’s frustrating. But, it is what is…

Half a day later, but still just early morning to the citizens of Barrow, we went off to get some breakfast before meeting with our customer. We deferred to the taxi driver on a place to eat who took us to Pepe’s North of the Border.

Our waiter, immediately bombarded us with stand-up jokes fit for Lenny Bruce, filling my coffee cup and saying he’s “not really a waiter, but a truck driver”. This was Joe. His mother is Pepe’s matriarch. This Mexican restaurant is a Barrow institution. Pepe’s founder Fran Tate has been in the Wall Street Journal and on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. What a great gimmick… South of the Border food hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle.

My co-worker and I soon realized the inauguration was on the radio and we didn’t talk much over breakfast, particularly when Obama’s speech started. Pepe’s had one of those classic, old FM radios that people used to have pre-boom boxes and it sounded great. I could hear a second radio or TV mimicking the radio at a lower volume and with a slight delay. That isn’t uncommon in Alaska. Transmissions here don’t always come across in real time.

Like I tend to do with all political speeches, I listened for the sound bites and taglines. I kept score in my head of what our new President said vs. what I wanted to hear. I wondered what aspects of the speech he would get criticized for. I felt sort of disappointed to not hear the next great phrase of our time. I guess when one of your themes is service to country, its tough to compete with “Ask not what your country…”

Here's what I did hear…
“It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.
Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor -- who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. “

Later, Obama went on to say...
“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.
We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.”

And that is exactly where I sat… the end of the Earth. At the edge of the North American land mass, but still in the United States. Here in Pepe’s I was close to everything he was saying. Here, looking up at piñatas on the ceiling where a woman left her oil job to succeed as an entrepreneurial restaurateur. Here, watching Inupiat mothers with children on their backs, covered in Eskimo parkas picking up take out. Here, where modern science, engineering and innovation has brought the oil pipeline. Here, where folks are talking about how they don’t see Caribou anymore because of global warming. Here, where everyday people live in an extreme environment facing extreme challenges, but ultimately just living their lives in the best way they can.

When we left the restaurant, the taxi took a road along the Chukchi Sea. I looked out over the frozen pack ice. I couldn’t see Russia or any Russians. The coast was clear. I felt lucky to have heard the speech this morning in this little town and somehow felt an indescribable kinship with the folks that live here. I was happy that we had elected a new President.
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