a semester of college under my belt, I loaded up the backpack,
bought a fool-proof fake ID and headed south. Meanwhile,
other boys were loading up duffels, leaving their hair
on the floor and shipping east. Aboard a land-based oil
rig, I would work close to 80 hours a week, mostly in
the dead of night. The others would spend most of their
daylight hours holding armalites in Kuwaiti trenches and
their nights fearing poison from above.
College enrollment shielded me from that first Gulf War,
but it didn’t prevent me from trying to reap some
of its benefits. A drummed-up conflict had slowed the
flow of cheap, foreign oil, and oil rigs were flourishing
in south Texas. Seeking riches and experience, I bought
a ticket to one of America’s proudest wastelands
and wound up in a one-bar town named Pleasanton.
The rig was pieced together from graveyards, bits and
pieces of once glorious but now retired rigs. Its derrick
was more than 40 years old, and the main platform had
spent its glory days in Kuwait of all places. Somehow
the patchwork held together.
Minutes into my first day, I ran into a grizzled character
in a stained tank top named Donny squatting behind one
of the giant diesel engines which drove the drill. Only
seven years my senior but hardened by a decade of roughnecking,
Donny topped the immediate chain of command as the driller.
I was on the bottom of the pile, a common roughneck, a
worm. Donny was sure to let me know it.
“You know, we separate the men from the boys out
here,” he said as he exhaled smoke through a stringy
“Oh, I know how to work,” I replied, doing
my best tough guy routine.
“We’ll see about that,” he chuckled
as he donned a sadistic grin.
Time passed slowly on the graveyard shift in south Texas.
Amid a constant roar, we slowly bit into the earth’s
core. Our task was to make downward progress, and I was
responsible for attaching 80-foot lengths of thick pipe
as the bit chewed through earth and rock. Attaching pipe
entailed throwing chain; whipping giant, suspended, pipe
wrenches called tongs around; cutting cable; spreading
pipe dope; and hauling nearly a mile and a ton of pipe.
When the drill bit burned out, we had to pull the entire
length out piece by piece. A fresh one was then attached,
and it would all go back in again, one piece at a time.
Donny held the controls. The worms did the work.
Time off was rare, and I spent my free time sleeping
during daylight hours and trying to forget Pleasanton.
Others made the drive south to the whorehouses in Laredo,
Mexico, squandering their wages in search of temporary
bliss. Instead of tripping to an even darker spot south
of the border, I devoted myself to the rig and rest, a
path that caused serious cracks to form and widen in my
confidence and character. After a couple months, I felt
appropriately small, a boy in a man’s world.
There were dozens of close calls, points where a finger
or an arm were nearly pinched off. These moments were
complemented by a co-worker’s frequent seizures,
brought on by his alcoholism. Even in the dark of night,
the Texas heat raged well above 90 degrees and our bodies
were bathed in a slick of grease and oil. And all the
while, there were tales of greater terrors awaiting us
deep beneath the ground.
“I’ve seen the pressure hit so hard, all
the pipe shot up through the rig and was spit out in a
split second,” the alcoholic explained. “The
stuff covered the ground and rig like spaghetti.”
A couple days later, he continued, “We’ll
hit natural gas, and we’ll hit poison gas. We’ll
get trained with the masks in a few days.”
Disaster came close to striking during the crack of an
August dawn. We were close to the end of our shift, Donny
had just returned from a secretive cigarette, and we were
pulling all of the pipe to replace a bit.
Lengths of pipe were lifted into the tower. As worms,
we took our tongs and detached the joints. With the help
of hydraulics, Donny lowered the 80-foot pieces, and we
set them aside, one at a time.
About three pieces of pipe into 50, Donny hauled a length
into the air and left it dangling. I followed the standard
routine, moving to the center of the platform, hundreds
of pounds swinging near my head. As I reached to guide
the steel length, the pipe loosened from its grip, dropped
6 feet onto the deck and bounced with a clang off the
edge and onto the ground. Shocked, I flashed a hard eye
at Donny. However, the sadistic grin was back, and a hardened
man was again chuckling at the boy.
Sleep came in shallow spurts after that night, and eventually
I awoke to the ring of the telephone and the voice of
Donny’s supervisor, a man we’d only seen through
the window of his brand new truck.
“We’ve got to close the rig down for at least
10 days,” he said in tones of consolation. “Oil
prices are back down, and we haven’t struck yet.
I’ve got to lay everyone off while the company rearranges
I hung up, immediately dialed San Antonio International
Airport and spent nearly all my earnings on a next-day
flight to Kauai. My days of breaking my back for an invisible
oil company were over. It was beyond time for water, sunshine,
normal work and the good life. I’d spent more than
enough time trying to take advantage of warfare in the
trenches of south Texas.