Knee-deep in the heart of Texas

With 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 mustache.

“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 some investments.”

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.

-Will Sands




News Index Second Index Opinion Index Classifieds Index Contact Index