FROM ROUGHNECKS TO OPERATORS Status and Hierarchy on a Texas Oil Rig AUSTIN As a Texan, it is with some trepidation and embarrassment that I subscribe to a thesis more boldly advanced in these columns by the Mississippi-born editor of this spritely journal: That the conspicuous absence of tourists in Texas stems mainly from the conspicuous absence of wondrous sights to which any self-respecting tourist could be expected to run as fast as his hairy, sunburnt legs would carry him. Congeries of cracker-box “skascrapous” \(the first “a” pronounced as the “a” in “axe” or the “y” suburban dairies, a cloud of smog by day and a pillar of refinery smoke by night: such attractions are plentiful in practically every other state in the union. Nor do we have a monopoly on parched, treeless desertland or vermin-infested pineywoods. The San Jacinto monument, we hear with dismay, is showing signs of decay, and Houston’s projected indoor, air-conditioned stadium is equalled or topped in every American home in the nation blessed with an icebox full of beer and a television set. There remains, however, at least one attraction which, if the public were given access to it, would draw every Howard Johnson hopping flatlander tourist from New York to the Pacific. Charge admission to a genuine rock eating, mud sucking, oilspouting Texas rotary rig, and the tourist problem, such as it is, would be solved. Drilling for oil is still a fascinating business. In an age where the cowboy is being superseded by the jeep driver, and the fur trader has given way to an auto parts salesman, the oil industry at least around the rotary rig has remained relatively unchanged. The service companies may have multiplied, along with the safety devices \(whose effician airstrip may be bulldozed near an important wildcat these days, but in the main, the life of a roustabout, a roughneck, a driller or toolpusher is essentially the combination of boredom and excitement it was when when Texas oil first began to boom. THE FIRST DAY I spent on a rig was a freezing, sunshiny day in January, a few miles outside of Port Arthur. The location was not boarded over, and you sunk up to your ankles in icy mud every step you took. After an hour or so the slush began to ooze through the lining of my Sears and Roebuck engineering boots I had bought the day before. Like any “weevil,” or beginner, breaking out in the oil field, I tripped, stumbled, and banged myself against every piece of equipment in the. area, and was Fubjected to a couple of the brutal and in retrospect, hilarious gags which the roughnecks perpetrate on the unwary. By the end of the tour \(promud-caked, and bruised to the point of exhaustion. And I was filled with that rare elation that comes only to occasional chewers of mescal, discoverers of new continents, or writers of good poems. “Here is a life,” I remember thinking at the end of the first day, “where a man is still a man, where guts are still in demand, where Will confronts Brute Nature.” Looking back on it now, I realize that after my two years of TILE TEXAS OBSERVER Page 8 August 24, 1962 vegetable existence in the Navy, working in a dime store would probably have had a similarly exhilarating effect upon me. After a few months in the oil patch, a lot of its romanticism wears off. Nonetheless, I have never completely lost my awe of the life on a rotary rig, and I contend that a good novelist could have a field day with the material it offers. Like any essentially feudalistic enterprise, the oil industry has its hierarchy, and the failure of the weevil to learn by heart the position each man on a rig occupies on the feudal ladder will probably cost him his job before he really ever gets down to work. AT THE BOTTOM of the scale are the salesmen and service company personnel who really don’t belong on the rig at all. They are foreigners to it. They may be ex-roughnecks themselves, and drive a new Oldsmobile and make as much money as the toolpusher, but on the social scale, they must remain irrevocably on the bottom rung. Occasionally, in a particular situation, they rise temporarily above their ordinary status, and enjoy a certain amount of authority. Such is the case when the electric logging engineer shoots a good “picture” of a difficult hole, or when the mud engineer supervises mud operations in a dangerous gas sand. But once the crisis is over, he sinks to his -original level, that of an outsider. Slightly above the “outsider” is the roustabout. Many people confuse him with a roughneck, but any self-respecting roughneck will resent such a confusion to the point, possibly, of punching the offender in the nose. A roustabout is a common laborer. He helps set up the rig, wrestles the drill pipe into place, scoops out the mud pits, and gets everything ready for the drilling operation to begin, His job ends abruptly there, and he fades from the picture until it is time to rig back down. Now comes the roughneck, and although the name has been appropriated into the American vernacular to connote any kind of a crude, b o is t e r o u s hell-raiser the oil business would fold up in a minute if he weren’t on the job. And it is a skilled, dangerous job, requiring intelligence and courage. In normal operation, there are three roughnecks who work on the derrick floor, and another who works on the “monkey board” about 80 feet above them. When a “trip” is being madethat is, when the drill pipe is being pulled out of the hole to change the drilling bitthe four roughnecks form a highly coordinated team. If any one of themor the driller makes a mistake, it can cost a life, or an arm, eye, or finger. And a lot of roughnecks make an occasional mistake. After you have worked in the oil patch a while, you begin to notice that a surprising number of drillers who were once roughnecksas well as the rest of the crew will have one, two, or sometimes even five fingers missing. Or they will sport ugly scars, or perhaps limp. One toolpusher I knew, who had worked his way up from roughneck, had only one arm. If you’ve ever stood up on the derrick floor and watched a crew making a trip, you can understand why roughnecks are accident-prone. First of all, they are working against the clock. Every hour of rig time costs the operator hundreds of dollars. An hour saved here and there can often be the difference between a successful operation and a failure. A roughneck who is slow, or who tends to hold things up, is told to hit the road. TOO, A TRIP is often made in bad weather conditions. Rain or snow can make the derrick floor treacherously slick, and a sand storm can blind you at a critical moment. The routine of a normal trip is monotonous, the same actions performed hundreds of times. The huge travelling block comes plummeting down from the top of the derrick, the pipe elevators dangling beneath it. As they reach the floor, the driller stops the block, and a roughneck fastens them around the drill pipe. Then the engines groan, the derrick shudders, and the block starts back up again, pulling the thousands of feet of drillpipe with it. There is a continual din on the derrick floor during a tripthe clash of the metal tongs against the pipe, the roar of the rotary table, the shaking of the derrick. There are a thousand different ways for a man to get hurt. He can get his fingers caught in the spinning chain, or the pipe tongs support can become fouled in the drill cable and smash in a skull. Once I saw the drill line break and the traveling block fall down to the floor. The roughnecks were alert enough to see it coming, and they jumped twenty feet from the floor to the cotton patch we were drilling in, and so averted calamity. A fat roughneck hurt his leg in the jump, however. OR THE DERRICK MAN, I whose job is still more demanding and more dangerous \(and who usually gets about ten cents more an hour for his trouless hectic. High off the floor, with a breathtaking view of the surrounding country, the noise below seldom reaches him. It is so quiet he can hear the sheaves spin in the travelling block as it passes him. In wintery it is often bitterly cold on the monkey board. And a fall, of course, is always possible. The derrick man’s harness seldom breaks, but some men have lost their lives either getting in or out of it, or descending to the floor after the trip is finished. Although the large operators, such as Humble, forbid it, many derrickmen, rather than take the ladder down, hop across the void from the monkey board to the elevators and ride down. Occasionally, one slips while making the hop. Next on the scale is the driller, a roughneck who has been promoted. There is a driller for each of the three crews, and he hires his own crew of roughnecks. The skill of a driller varies tremendously from rig to rig. Some of them are so inept at drilling and making a trip that to work as a roughneck under them is extremely dangerous. I have often pitied a poor roughneck with a wife and a couple of kids in a slump period having to hire out to a bad driller. His chances of being maimed or killed become exceedingly great in such a situation, but to protest would mean being without a job. And in an oilfield slump, there are always twenty unemployed roughnecks to take Your place if you get fired. On the other hand there is the driller who is expert enough to tell almost infallibly what kind of a formation he is drilling in 10,000 feet or more below the surface, and who handles the derrick machinery with loving care. Under such a man, it is a pleasure to see the roughnecks work. If they are a good crew, their performance on the floor is as satisfying as an athletic team’s performance. IF A DRILLER is good enough, I and performs faithfully for a number of years under one contractor, he has a chance to become a toolpusher, which for the oilfield worker is the epitome of success. A good pusher can pull down a salary of over a thousand dollars a month, plus having a chance to invest in his company’s stock, plus being able to receive the hundreds of presentswhiskey, hunting trips, gadgetswith which oil field salesmen ply him in hopes of selling him their wares. The pusher is the man who runs the rig. He is, like the sea captain, one of the few absolute monarchs left. I have seen a pusher tell a $25,000-a-year consultant geologist to go straight to hell for suggesting a course of action the pusher knew to be ridiculous. And the operator himself, who occasionally comes out to the well in his plane or his air-conditioned Cadillac at a crucial moment, will seldom make a decision without first seeking the toolpusher’s opinion. He is, indeed, the lord of the rig, but he often pays for it with ulcers. The pusher occupies one of those jobs where mistakes are not allowed, He is, again like a ship captain, absolutely responsible for what happens at the rig. If the bit sinks into a high pressure zone and gas comes tearing up the hole and out the bell nipple before the blowout preventers and the hydril can be put into operation, and the well burns and craters, it is the pusher’s fault for not knowing the gas was there. The blame for the loss of several lives and millions of dollars falls squarely upon him. Not legally, of course. But according to the unwritten oil field code, he bears the heavy burden of the catastrophe, and it can ruin a man’s insides. Sometimes, if a pusher has an exceptional reputation, and the circumstances are mitigated, the company will let him stay on after a blowout or other accident occurs. If he is tough, he continues as before, calm, careful, conscientious, sleeping on the rig, seldom leaving for more than an hour a day. But to others, their responsibility for an accident unnerves them. The possibility of a second piece of bad luck, and the almost certain end of their career it would entail, turns them to jelly, and every drilling operation becomes a prolonged nightmare for them. Even the most trivial decision becomes agonizing, and the ensuing nervousness increases the possibility of a bad accident’s recurrence. It is difficult to work under such a man. Everyone on the rig eventually begins to share his tension and preoccupations. It is a sorry way to end one’s career. AT THIS POINT a word should be added concerning the geol ogist. Usually, in his opinion, he is much more important than any one involved in the operation and answerable only to the operator. But in the eyes of the oil workers, he is beneath contempt. There is a suspicion of college-trained men among roughnecks, and as there is very seldom any tangible evidence to them that the geologist knows what he is talking about, he is taken with a grain of salt or actively despised. One summer I was working on an off-shore rig in Louisiana, and the enterprise was depressingly boring. We had drilled 15,000 feet of shale, and day followed day without any appreciable deviation from the routine. Then one day the geologist, a pink-cheeked youth who was especially peremptory, leaned leisurely backward against the life line of the drilling barge, which promptly broke and spilled him into the ocean fifteen feet below. The beneficial effect of this single event was to be remarked in the roughneck’s revitalized behavior for as long as a week afterwards. Geologists are necessary, of course, and sometimes very skilled, but they are seldom accepted as insiders on a rig. Finally there is the operator. If he is an independent, you can pretty well count on him to be a colorful character. Like the Texas legislator, he has acquired from Hollywood or Wild West fiction an idea of what he is supposed to be like, and he is often more bona fide than the prototype. One old fellow whom I met on a well near Laredo always comes to mind when I think of operators. At eighty-five, he still insisted on staying on or near the location of his important wells whenever a pay sand was expected. He rode alone in his long black chauffeur-driven limousine, leading a caravan which included a car-full of geologists and another containing his son, the acting president of the company, and his three grandsons, the vice presidents. There was never any doubt, though, as to who was calling the plays.
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