zama city or bust!
This is an excerpt from the book "Alberta" by Robert Kroetsch. I am putting it here with his kind permission. Many many years ago (I am thinking 1990), Robert showed up in my office (which is in the store) and introduced himself to me as a writer who is updating a book he wrote 25 years earlier called "Alberta." At the time I had no idea who Robert Kroetsch was, but we ended up having an extended conversation about many topics related to Zama. Years later when I was vacationing in Toronto, I came across a book named "Alberta" in the famous "Biggest Book Store" just off Yonge Street. I thought to myself - could this be the one? My curiosity was immediately answered when I noticed Zama and my name in the index. I was so excited that I took all the copies off the shelf and headed to the checkout counter. When the total came to $180, I reluctantly forced myself to put some of the copies back. The piece about Zama is interesting because it's the only writing about Zama that existed (probably) at the time and also it gives a hint of my interest in eventually becoming a filmmaker.
Zama City. That's what it said, there on our map at the end of a road that reached into the north and the west from High Level. The letter zed, the end of the road. We couldn't resist.There are two hundred people in Zama City, but not one house. There is a brand new school. Zama City is a community based on an oil field that is out in bush and muskeg. The citizens of Zama City live in trailers. No one, so far, has built a house in Zama City. But almost everyone here has a satellite dish. A busy young man who somehow finds time to stop and talk, Hakan Sahin is responsible for much of what happens in the way of business in Zama City. His garage and service station and general store have become unofficial post office, and unofficial bank; his is the only store in the community. Hakan, when I met him, was seated in his office playing a game on his computer. Hakan Sahin's father was from Turkey. Mr.Sahin and his brother were working for a trucking company in Montreal, until one evening in 1976 when they read an ad in a newspaper asking for workers to work in an oil camp in northern Alberta. The two brothers went to Zama City and very soon started their own trucking company. They went into the business of collecting crude oil from wells out in the bush and hauling it to collection centres. They called their company Zama Transport, but in 1982 they changed the name to ATA. Hakan jokes about the name now. Some people, he says, believe the three letters stand for Awful Truckers' Association. Others believe it stands for Alberta Turks' Association. In fact it has something to do with the first three letters of Ataturk's name; ATA means grand, or father. Hakan and I went to the bunkhouse where he and his drivers live. Or rather, we went to the cookhouse; he disappeared into his room and came to the dining hall with three photograph albums. We looked at pictures of an oil truck stuck in Alberta muskeg; we looked at pictures of handsome men and beautiful women on Turkish beaches. Hakan's father is in Turkey now. Hakan's uncle has bought a motel in B.C. Hakan came to join his father in Zama City at the age of fifteen; now he has a degree in computer engineering from the University of Alberta. And now he and his brother run ATA. The demand for oil trucks has declined since the pipeline came into the area. Now Hakan and his brother concentrate on their grocery store and garage. And Hakan's brother, on the day of our visit, was in Turkey, trying to get permission from Canadian Immigration to bring his new bride to Zama City. Hakan's father, Mr.Sahin, is in Turkey, but he lives on in Zama City as a legend. We looked at photographs, Hakan and I. His father is famous for having kept trucks operating when the thermometer fell to minus sixty centigrade- back then, when he couldn't afford a new window for the driver's side of his own truck. When a pipe wrench or tire wrench might snap like a stick of wood if used outside in that iron cold. And fixing tires, those days, took just about as much time as hauling oil. Hakan admitted, apologetically, that the weather in Zama City isn't what it used to be. For six years now, minus thirty-five has been the coldest day of the winter. How can you become a hero in such weather? "But the mud," he added, defending himself. "The mud in summer is worse than any cold in winter. At least in the cold your truck doesn't sink out of sight. In the muskeg, in summer, you can't decide whether the mud or the mosquitoes will get you first." He paused to consider. " And the sour gas," he went on. "When you empty a tanker, what you have left is sour gas. H2S. One sniff and you might be paralyzed." The nearest doctor is a long ways off. A nurse comes in to visit Zama City once a week. A lot of people, Hakan explained, have a love-hate relationship with Zama. And perhaps that includes Hakan. He would like, one day, to make films. For now he runs the family business, and keeps a frontier town buzzing with his investment and his energy. The oil patch, he said, is a twenty-four-hour business. No holidays. The phone has been on line since 1976. "We don't own an Office Closed sign." And that was lucky for Rudy and me. We had flat tire before we were half an hour away from Zama City. We limped back on a small wheel. Hakan wasn't surprised to see us. "You see," he said, "the oil company grader throws all the garbage and junk and bits of iron back into the middle of the road. They graded yesterday."