Yankee Classic: Life on an Oil Rig
I have nightmares after I work with the crane: I dream that I get squished, and I wake up screaming. My three roommates awaken, confused, scared, a little mad. I tell them I dreamt they got squished, which worries them, subtly. When I work on a high beam I dream that my bunk is that same beam. I work all day, go to bed, then work all night. Once I removed a section from the ceiling and tried to climb in. Or so I was told.
This routine is typical, but every day brings something new. Roustabouts, they say, are paid from the shoulders down: they are general laborers who help whoever needs it. I have worked with the rig mechanic, climbing down inside one of the legs to inspect the ballast system. It feels like being in a strange movie about an underground race of stranded sewer people. A myriad of shadows and ladders descends deep, deeper; we worm through human-size hatches and hear echoes of our hands slapping against rungs. I wonder how they would get me out if I fell? Finally reaching bottom, 49 feet below sea level, I tighten one nut. We rise.
I have worked 50 feet over the water in the personnel basket, looking like a spider at the end of a long one-inch steel cable. (The basket is used to transport men to the boat.) We had to remove a nut from a bolt, the bolt from a hinge. The nut came off pretty easily, but the bolt wouldn’t budge. Heating the bolt with an acetylene torch, we alternated whacking it with an eight-pound sledge. Swinging, swaying, I worked on this thing until I didn’t think I could squeeze the handle anymore — three hours.
Water got into the cement tank, and some cement solidified. A cement tank looks like a farm silo and sits in one of the legs. Our crew had to enter this tube and chip it out. My job was to stay topside, lift up chunks in a bucket, throw them overboard, and lower the bucket back down. Every now and then one of the cement-covered crew surfaced for fresh air. Cement irritates sensitive skin, nostrils, lungs.
Many days I work at the pipe rack, which is the storage area for various types of drill pipe. The roustabout’s job is to insert crane hooks into the ends of a joint of pipe, signal the operator to lift the load, keep it from swinging, guide the pipe over to the catwalk, cut it loose, then wrap one end of it with an air-hoist chain. This allows the pipe to be pulled up the V -door to the drill floor. You have to watch your fingers and your toes. Team work is very important, because everything happens at once: two men work on the catwalk, two with the crane. There’s a lot of iron in the air; we hope it’s not overhead.
Probably the hardest job of all is to stay awake the first night we work. When I get to the rig I work for one week from 11:30 A.M. to 11:30 P.M. Then they swing us, and for the last week I work from 11:30 P.M. to 11 :30 A.M. At 2 A.M. I grow despondent; how much so depends on what I have to do. Six cups of dark-roast coffee during the three o’clock break will carry me until six; it’s downhill from there. Some men take speed; a few crash too early. Near the end of the shift everybody fights a vicious fatigue.
The ability to work hard when you can barely keep your eyes open is what the job is all about. Keep up the pace: hustle, hustle. It’s how to keep your job and move ahead. Someone swings a sledgehammer 15 times, you swing it 16. The toolpusher demands that his rig be run a certain way. He works for the drilling company that leases the rig to an oil company, and he is responsible for the personnel and equipment necessary to explore ‘ for oil and gas. The toolpushers that I know have little formal education, but are experts on the complicated science of drilling for oil. They are pressured to be cost-conscious, to run the rig as productively and cheaply as possible. Safety is sometimes compromised. If there were a common wish among the 60 men on the rig, it would be that we all go home safely.
Money is the key word: do we take risks and tolerate hazards for it? Probably so. The backgrounds of the men I work with are diverse : half from the South, half Yankee, we are together to make a living. No unions, no skills are needed to start. Roustabouts average $15 ,000 a year, roughnecks $19,000, drillers $30,000. It is not uncommon to make roughneck (work on the drill floor) in six months and driller (operate controls for the drill) in under nine years. Overseas, wages are higher, as an incentive for a more demanding schedule: 28 days on, 28 off.
I met Callahan in the Gulf. He was the platform bedmaker. It first struck me as odd that he smelled like an old neighbor of mine in Massachusetts. His sweater, I thought, must have come from the sea chest of a captain dead 20 years — not a bad smell, but peculiar. Oh, my good friend Callahan is an artist, writer, ex-soldier; a 50-year-old Boston Irishman who has read everything from Balzac to Delmore Schwartz. He loves his work, so much so that he jokes how he should pay them for the opportunity! Often staying months at a stretch, he works on his novel about prison experiences. The beds he makes are another matter. He calls them New England straitjackets. It takes a crowbar to pry back the sheets; once inside it tightens up like an enraged octopus. The safest approach is to rip it apart while you still have the strength. Callahan is one of a kind.
Adventure, money, escape? Whatever the reasons for working offshore, nobody will deny that the surroundings are exhilarating. Hanging by a safety belt 100 feet over the water I watch an orange carpet of light from the sunrise unroll to the rig and burn out. The lights of a freighter move across the horizon like the second hand of a watch; thousands of seagulls, white bodies in deep space, bob on water you don’t see at night. In a storm, 30-foot seas turn the standby boat into a bronco. It rears way back to the tip of its tail, then nose-dives into the waves’ trough and disappears.
In the Gulf of Mexico, I woke some days to find the platform had been invaded by a swarm of dragonflies, buzzing around the lights, dying. I swept them into neat piles that attracted purple martins. Several hitches ago on this rig I looked up at 1 A.M. to see a mad snowstorm of small birds fluttering about the derrick. In the next two hours my hard hat was hit four times by falling birds. About 4 A.M. it happened: 99 percent of them rained down, dead. We shoveled them into empty barrels, filling five 55-gallon drums to the brim. Birds barely alive were found the next night in corners, under boards, in pails. We left them alone. If they were covered with oil or accidentally stepped on, they were thrown overboard. It seemed as though a strong, untimely easterly wind must have been responsible for stranding, ultimately killing, a flock of migrating birds.
On this same hitch, large white egrets appeared one night, and circled the rig counterclockwise. With each revolution, about ten would land on the flare boom in line and look in the same direction. Their beauty was a balance of awkwardness and grace: long necks folded like a crushed S, yellow legs dangling in flight, huge wings flapping. Occasionally one called out.
For hours this pattern of circling and landing didn’t change. Some of the men tossed scraps of metal at them. One egret was hit and knocked 100 feet to the water. Then a man crawled out on the boom and grabbed one when it landed, breaking its leg. Walking back, he held it in his raised arm; otherwise the egret’s head would have dragged along the grating. After everybody had seen it, he threw it overboard; it made no effort to fly, simply glided to the water. The other egrets had continued to circle and land, circle and land, which made me wonder if the entire flock could have been destroyed in this fashion, until the last lone egret circled and landed.
The next morning I was up early, excited about going home. I went outside to find it was still dark, but a fan of yellow light was unfolding on the horizon. The egrets were still there, held captive by man-made light. Wouldn’t the sun set them free? Once the flock broke its circling pattern and snaked its way about 200 yards south in wide swooping S’s as though the birds were doing some secret dance, but they returned for more circling. They repeated this maneuver again, heading south following that same crazy map. This time they didn’t come back. Daylight had arrived.
After two weeks on the rig, I have ten days to do as I please.