A Short Word From The Boss
I cannot begin to convey the effect your many, many kind expressions of concern and support have had. It is simply overwhelming… so, I’ll merely say that from the bottom of my heart, in that special place that not even I am allowed to visit routinely, I cherish every word. I couldn’t ask for better friends. On behalf of my family, I wish you all the good things life has to offer.
(A little smattering of my history)
If you find yourself wandering around in Casper, Wyoming, especially if it’s 1977, you’d be well advised to take plenty of money or lots of plastic with a lofty credit limit. A steak at The Glory Hole will cost you $30 a la carte. You see, my friend, you’re in a boomtown, the richest little city in North America. There are more millionaires here, per capita, than any town in the country. If you’re a young mud engineer fresh out of college, assigned to live and work there by IMCO Services of Halliburton, the largest well-service organization in the world, you’ll be looking for a pull-behind camper trailer to rent, from one of the entrepreneurs who’ve sprung up on the outskirts of town. The KOA Campgrounds facilities, once the Hilton of vacationing families seeking the splendor of the Rocky Mountains, are now filled with the oil field equivalent of affordable housing for roustabouts, tool-pushers, and auxiliary rig hands of all sorts. A dinky room in one of these little beauties will run you from $700-1000 per month, depending on availability. That’s why, in the summer at least, you’ll find many men living in their pick-ups. Of course, this isn’t a real problem, because, by the time they get tired enough to want to sleep, most will be so drunk that it won’t matter whether it’s a bed, a seat or a gurney. So long as they’re able to get back out to the rig by the time his next tour starts, few rules apply in Casper.
Thirty-one revolutions around the sun have past, countless global incidences of natural and human disaster and triumph have come and gone, and I can still feel it. When I first drove northwest out of Casper—looking for the small signposts indicating that even though I had no idea where I was heading, I knew I was on the right trail— I finally pulled onto the lease and stepped out of my truck. Through my brandy-ass new steel-toed boots, I felt the ground unite with that rig to form a living, breathing creature whose life force emanated as an audible buzz of droning low frequency, its pulse the steady micro-bursts of energy produced by some unseen heart. Stepping onto the drilling platform of Cardinal #UH-874, it enveloped me, sniffing at me and checking me out—looking for my soul and determining my worthiness for acceptance.
The rig was a jackknife, small by Overthrust Belt standards, designed to dig shallower total depth wells. Hauled to the site by a flatbed semi, it could easily be tethered, the derrick pulled into place by hydraulic means and stabilized to practically any semi-flat terrain. The degassers, silt shakers, mud pits, prime mover and doghouse were all brought in modules and connected to the drilling platform. Fluid and air lines were matched to accompanying receptacles and electricity from the massive auxiliary generators soon coursed through equipment designed for precisely one purpose—make a hole in the earth ten thousand feet deep and see what happens next.
There was a saying in the ‘oil patch’. Once you’re oilfield trash, you remain oilfield trash forever. To a man, the sentiment was worn as a badge of honor. Of course, my perspective, given my recent foray onto the scene, still contained a certain ‘wait and see’ reservation. I didn’t totally buy into the prospect of never again being accepted or wanting to be accepted by society. Sure, even at twenty-eight years of age, I’d already proven to be a maverick. After four-year stints in the Marine Corps and college, I headed down the road to perdition willingly, but I couldn’t claim to be a professional malcontent or recluse. I did care what the world thought of me, at least as far as a casual observer might be concerned. Yes, I’d been through a war and had some invisible wounds and scars that I wanted to hide, but I’d not yet chosen to fold up the tent and jump off the mountain.
Still, the bad reputation that my compatriots held within the community at large appealed to me on some level just below the surface. There’d been lots of experiences in the Marines (mainly in the Far East) that had titillated my ‘dark side’ and allowed me to experience the rawness of emotions unencumbered by conscience. So I understood the looks I got from Californians when I first returned to the U.S. in 1969. In my khaki dress uniform, I represented all the atrocities they’d watched on the evening news and read about in the Los Angeles Times. I’d also heard that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck, so early on I abandoned any altruistic campaigns designed to change peoples’ attitudes and impressions. However, although I retained the right to be a duck, I chose not to jump into every pond I saw. This gave me the ability to travel in both circles, a chameleon that could show you whatever spots you wanted to see. That particular talent allowed me to travel under the radar and entitled me to acceptance with the bad boys as well as the good. Plus, at that time, I think there was a choir boy or Boy Scout still bunking somewhere inside my psyche, an apolitical, perpetual adolescent who knew right from wrong, even if he chose to look past it on occasion. After all, if my Catechism could be believed, my deceased mother saw every move I made, and I didn’t want to disappoint her... too often. In the oil patches of northwestern Wyoming in 1976, it became the best of all possible worlds.
Rig hierarchy varied, depending on the company. Cardinal was a turnkey operation, a type of financing arrangement for the drilling of a well that places considerable risk and potential reward on the drilling contractor (Cardinal). Under such an arrangement, the drilling contractor assumes full responsibility for the well to some predetermined milestone such as the successful running of logs at the end of the well, the successful cementing of casing in the well or even the completion of the well. Of course, this meant that the boss, the company man, was responsible for providing labor under a contract to an outside firm. Casper was full of “temp-agencies” who provided just such labor. When a man hired on as a roustabout (unskilled or semi-skilled labor) he worked for the temp-agency, but answered to a boss called the tool-pusher. Every rig hand aspired to someday be a tool-pusher, because he was like a First Sergeant; he was responsible for making sure that no matter what formation was being drilled, no matter what weather conditions prevailed, no matter how many rig hands were killed on a tour (shift), he would make sure that a pre-designated number of feet of bit penetration occurred. And when a tour ended, it was generally the tool-pusher who decided what bar the crew would attack.
I was a mud engineer. My job dealt with the annulus (hole) that the drill bit made. Drilling mud, simply put, fulfills much the same function as the internal organs of a human being. Its composition varies with depth of the hole, geologic strata, and many more conditions that need not be described, but it is essential to remove the cuttings from the well bore and cool the bit. The mud circulates continuously and forms a cake on the side of the hole during drilling to ensure that the hole doesn’t cave in and cause stuck pipe. A tool-pusher doesn’t like stuck pipe because it keeps him from attaining his quota for depth. In the oil patch, time is money. Since I’m hired by the company man and don’t work for the tool-pusher, he’s not required to consider my safety. If, in his opinion, my mud causes him to lose circulation in the well, he’s probably going to come looking for me with fire in his eyes. Ask any roustabout… that’s not a desirable position to find one’s self in. With this in mind, I tried to always make sure I found out where the crew was headed after the tour concluded. A few rounds of drinks, dinner and a hooker or two went a long way towards consideration, if not forgiveness, if a well went sour. I certainly didn’t want to find myself tied upside down by the feet, dangling at the outer end of the monkey boards (upper derrick catwalk). Halliburton offered me a very liberal expense account, because if we brought the well in successfully, I’d be a big hit with the company man, and it was likely he’d hire us for more wells to be drilled. Dropping a couple of hundred dollars a night on booze and hookers was both accepted by my employer and expected by the crew. My biggest problem became getting reimbursed for my expenses. I had a $5,000 limit on the two cards I’d been provided. Many months, I had to call my district manager and get it extended so that I could live until I had time to do the paperwork, a task that would become considerably more onerous if I had a broken leg or two.
Even my company had to draw the line on expenses somewhere, so I was not allowed to use my credit cards to make bail for either my cohorts or myself, a condition that was called into question on several occasions. The good citizenry of Casper loved the standard of living supplied by the oilfield workers if not the workers themselves. ‘Come, spend your money, have a good time, then get the hell out’ seemed to be the prevailing attitude for most of the townies. Certainly, they didn’t want their daughters becoming involved with these yahoos. However, young people being young people, the chasm separating roughnecks from debutantes was breached with impunity and swiftness approaching the speed of sound. The mix of hormones and liquor provided whatever impetus was necessary for nature to insure the prolongation of the species, no matter what a young lady’s parents might forbid. Many a truck backseat was filled with bodies engaged in ‘doin’ the wild thing’ without the benefit of protection. Ninety days later, sheriff’s deputies combed the trailers and doghouses of rigs scattered throughout a three-county area, looking for a roustabout with ‘a tattoo of Satan on his belly’ or ‘long, blonde hair cut in a mullet’. Within twelve hours of the first visit, tattoo parlor artists would tattoo Satan on at least five people and every barber in town would find blonde hair all over his floor. Never in the history of mankind have hairstyles and body art varied so radically and rapidly.
Unfortunately, booze and drugs were also very often blended in the witches’ brew of oilfield society, or more correctly, dearth of society. As is commonly the case in any group known to man, that is when things got out of hand. Pool, cards, dice and dominoes also found their way into any bar from Jeffrey City to Douglas, Rock Springs to Gillette. Wages in the oil patch were very good because the hours were long and the work was dangerous. A certain type of man is usually attracted to the oil patch. He’s probably under-educated and over-medicated, oversexed and under-loved, quick on his feet and good with his hands, and has a heightened sense that the world is out to screw him if he gives it a chance. Combine that with an over-active sense of immediacy resulting from putting his life on the line most every day and you have a walking billboard for Alcoholics Anonymous who will do most anything to keep from looking like a coward when his buddies challenge him to do something stupid. By any means available, keep firearms well out of his reach.
I never tired of watching the interaction of the crew. My job allowed me that luxury from time to time as I waited for a water test to run the seconds off a timer or a rheometer to compute the viscosity of the mud. Every move on the drilling platform was choreographed as surely as a dancer waiting for his cue to move onstage. The drilling itself was accomplished by turning the bit in the earth, and chains wrapped around the ‘kelly’, the connection between the strand of pipe and the rig. Depending on the layer being drilled, the rate of penetration varied. The tool-pusher had the responsibility to see to it that the prime movers (power plant that turned the chain) were set to the proper RPM’s to optimize the penetration rate of the drill bit. If it went too fast, he risked collapsing the hole or burning up the bit. If it went too slow, he didn’t make his quota of penetration for the tour. So, it became very important that when a piece of drill pipe had reached a point where it needed to be coupled with the next, the crew lose no time in making the connection and restoring the drilling process. This required that the chain be removed and replaced on the next strand. This was known as ‘throwing chain’, an extremely dangerous procedure that could cost a roughneck his finger or hand in the blink of an eye, if he was careless or unobservant. One worker would place the threads of the new strand over the coupling of the old, slosh on some pipe dope to keep the threads from leaking and facilitate the joint seal, while the other whipped the chain around the new joint and attached it to the prime mover, causing it to turn rapidly and begin the process anew. The drilling platform itself was always wet, icy or totally frozen dependent upon weather, and footing was often treacherous. The men working together had total confidence in each other and most of the time, were closer than brothers. In fact, on many occasions, they were brothers. The oilfield was passed down, father to son, for generations.
On every rig, the least experienced man had to ‘walk the monkey boards’, a job that almost everyone hated. The upper derrick catwalk, a platform at the extreme top of the derrick, is used to store pipe during a ‘trip’. A trip is the temporary cessation of the drilling process in which all pipe is removed from the annulus. This can occur when the crew has to change a bit, set casing, or if they get stuck pipe. Obviously, the pipe must be stored somewhere, and the top of the derrick is the perfect place. During a trip, the pipe is hoisted to the monkey boards, where it is stacked in neat rows, suspended above the ground. Then, when the repairs are completed, the pipe is brought back, hooked piece by piece to the kelly, and the drilling process starts over again. The man positioned atop the monkey boards must guide the pipe into the storage holders and unhook it from the hoist chain. Depending on the season, he is almost constantly bombarded with rain, snow or sleet. In Wyoming, there are few days when the wind doesn’t blow and gust, so footing is always treacherous. Throw in the fact that the monkey board workers are seventy feet above ground for twelve hours at a time, and it doesn’t require a lot of imagination to understand why everyone hates the job.
With all the kidding and horseplay that crews inflict upon one another off the rig, there is seldom any levity present during working hours, at least not on the drilling platform and certainly not during the final stages of the drilling operation, when the drillers approach total depth. Before a well is ever spudded in, geologists have determined, through various sonic tests, that an oil-producing formation exists at a pre-determined depth. Not all of these formations contain the select conditions necessary to produce crude oil, but if a geologist signs off on a study, it can be pretty well assumed that the probability is high. Of course, the predicted depth can only be estimated within a given range. When this range of depth is entered by the drill pipe, at any time the bit could pierce the salt dome directly atop the formation and send a high-pressure surge of natural gas up through the annulus. Directly under every drilling platform, there are large hydraulic rams that must shut and close around the drill pipe, securing it against the pressure, thereby diverting the gas flow under the rig. This is called ‘taking a kick’. If the tool-pusher (or whoever has been designated) doesn’t immediately get the rams shut, the pipe will come back up the annulus along with the gas and knock the derrick over, likely killing everyone on the rig. Reaction time and attention to detail are extremely important during this critical time, so it isn’t hard to understand that nerves tend to get frayed during the final stages of the drilling process. It is the one time that crews tend to take it easy on the booze. Some carry their abstinence so far as to actually go home during their time off between tours. It’s a drastic step, assuredly, but a price that must be paid. Besides, if the well is completed, there’ll be a fat bonus check accompanying the shutdown process and plenty of time to go to the bar and really do it up right.
On an oilrig, preachers and teetotalers are endangered species. Oilfield trash is, if nothing else, honest and forthcoming. A roughneck lives as though each day could be his last; the threat of impending death is never far from his thoughts. He’ll give, or forgive his crewmates nearly anything as long as they don’t violate the code. It’s very simple: Your brothers on your crew are your family. Their problems are your problems, their joys your joys and their lives, your life. Like in any family, troubles may arise, but they are handled in whatever manner is dictated at the time; his brothers unequivocally support decisions made by a member until such time as the code is violated. Pick a fight with one member of that family, and you have picked a fight with the entire crew. I wish you luck, because you’re going to need it. It has happened that entire crews had to be bailed out of jail for a breech of accepted town ordinances. Brash, bawdy, ornery, loud, unabashed, vulgar, lewd, rude… all valid descriptions of oilfield trash; but if you leave out ‘loyal’, you’ve omitted the very essence of the lifestyle.
I moved on from Casper when I was re-assigned to Beaumont, Texas, then Haynesville, Louisiana. The weather was as different as the people. Instead of the cold, harsh winds and people of northwestern Wyoming, I was treated to the steamy warmth of the deep South, with all the amenities naturally offered by the nice people I met down there. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the Latin derivation of ‘Louisiana’ is ‘place of hospitable people’. Then, in 1982, the end came. OPEC broke the American oil market and destroyed one of the greatest American industries. I was forced to scramble, and found a place treating industrial water systems. Suddenly, I was transmogrified from engineer to businessman, and I remain so to this day. And I’m poorer for it. They’re gone, but not forgotten. Come to think of it, if you substitute ‘Marine’ for ‘oilfield trash’ the above-stated qualities (I stop short of calling them virtues) are just as valid. Maybe that’s why I love them so much…