"Defending The Honor" by Greig Grey Back to Articles
Defending The Honor
By Greig Grey
Turbo Justin was proud of his heritage as Oil Field Trash. He carried himself on and off the rig as a man fulfilling his destiny: a third generation oilman, a representative of the industry. He didn’t come by the nickname accidentally; he’d earned it by his work ethic.
I doubled for Turbo on a few occasions. Once was the day after the incident, as it was known. He gave me a sandwich since I didn’t know I’d be staying over. You rarely know that a double’s coming your way; blindsided as relief shows up and three bodies crawl out from the rig-beater. You pray that it’s not your man who’s missing. Someone gets the privilege of staying over for eight more hours, and unless you’re going on days off, you’ve got to be back on tour eight short hours later. You get some sleep in the mud trailer after working your sixteen, on a bed made from sacks of paper: cave man style. It’s great when you get your paycheck but it sucks at the time.
Turbo was still wound up as we sat in the top doghouse, his knuckles on both hands crusted with fresh scabs.
"Were you born in Michigan?" Turbo asked.
"Yep," I answered. "Northern Michigan hillbilly. Fifth generation. How about you?"
"Me too," he said. "I’m only second generation though. My grandpa was a driller in Pitthole Pennsylvania. Back when the derricks were made of wood. When the fields dried up there, he hopped a train for Oil City. Left the family behind and hired on working the standard derricks around Mount Pleasant. He wired my grandma train fare after his third paycheck." Turbo stood and adjusted the automatic driller. "He died six years later when they discovered the sour gas field in Rosebush. Then my dad died when they found it in Kingsley. Neither one lived to see fifty. Helluva way to find out where H2S zones are. At least coal miners used canaries. Oil they say is a nonrenewable resource. But men... There’re plenty of us to go around."
Whenever we rigged up within twenty miles of a Hydrogen Sulfide well, Scott air packs and wind socks were supplied. Then we’d have to sit through two hours of safety meetings before spudding in. "Your first smell could be your last," Haywire, our safety director would preach. H2S smells like rotten eggs but deadens your olfactory nerves instantly. Which often leads a hand into thinking it has gone away since he can no longer smell it. In high enough concentrations, it causes immediate unconsciousness and death within minutes. It’s heavier than air and the cellar is the most dangerous area since it’s the lowest. But sour gas isn’t particular when you drill into its turf: it will kill you anywhere.
Protocol is to shut down the operation if the H2S alarms go off. You glance at the nearest wind sock, get a fix on the direction, and run upwind for all your worth. Then you put on Scott air packs before going back to retrieve and resuscitate overcome roughnecks, or resume drilling operations.
Two months ago, 800 barrels of brine was trucked out to Rig 5 that somehow contained high amounts of H2S. They weren’t drilling in a sour gas zone so they didn’t have sensors or air packs. As they switched over from fresh water to brine, the derrick-hand waited at the shale shaker, ready to close in the pits when the brine returned bottoms up. As it came over the shaker, he was knocked out by the sour gas and fell off the pits. He broke his neck in the fall and his body wasn’t discovered for two hours. He was a damn good roughneck and a good man, leaving behind a wife and two kids. Just when you thought you’d seen and heard it all.
My first experience with the evil vapor was ironically my first day as a derrick-hand. We were tripping out of the hole and the morning tour latch-hand stayed over for a few minutes to show me how to jack back the drill collars since I had never handled them before. I climbed up to the board and he coached me on how to wrestle them back with a wrap and a half, then tie them off with two half hitch knots. He used the climbing belt to head down after my crash course in Six Thousand Pounds 101.
I had tied off three of them when the H2S alarms went off. I looked down to see the floor-hands scatter and JD chaining down the brake handle. He looked up and shouted, "Climb down you dumb bastard," before he too fled.
That’s a plan, I thought. Hydrogen Sulfide is heavier than air and lies close to the ground. So here I stood, fifty-five feet off the rig floor with no climbing belt to assist me and I’m ordered to come down? JD was the boss so who was I to question him.
My hands were shaking long before the sensors squawked, and were trembling uncontrollably as I unfastened my safety belt. I glanced at the wind sock, mounted on the doghouse as I made my way halfway down the ladder. There was nobody in sight on the ground. As I got within twenty feet I devised a plan. I’d gulp in one last breath of precious, uncontaminated oxygen when I got ten feet from the floor, climb down the last few rungs, then sprint upwind like a race horse on the wrong end of a cattle prod. My plan went to hell when I lost my grip six feet from the floor. I bounced off the brake handle and landed flat on my back next to the draw works steps. I stood up and took another breath as I charged down those stairs, past the V-12 Detroits, past the mud pumps, and off into the woods. I’m not sure how far I’d made it before I stopped. Maybe two-hundred yards; maybe half a mile. Steel-toed boots and all, I think I outran a whitetail or two, dodging trees in high gear. I looked around and didn’t see anyone else; didn’t notice any live bodies during my dash. JD and Hadley should be around here somewhere. Maybe they were overcome. Leon probably ran downwind...
I sat down on a log and fished a pack of Cowboy Killers from my shirt pocket, sides heaving, heart pounding. I needed a nicotine fix but couldn’t control my hands enough to pull a cigarette free from the pack. So I pulled a tin of Copenhagen from my back pocket, and promptly emptied it onto the ground. I sat there for fifteen minutes, wondering what I’d do next. Where I’d go to work now. I sure as hell wasn’t staying out here... Not after this. Maybe I’d go back to the sawmill, try and get a full time position. No way was I going back to the restaurant. That bridge had been burned anyway. I’d sort it out after JD’s funeral. Maybe get some flowers for the poor bastard. It was the least I could do.
Then I heard voices off in the distance, signs of life from the direction I had ran from. I cautiously walked towards the sounds, the wind at my back. Maybe an ambulance, or the coroner sent to collect the dead bodies? I reached the clearing after a few minutes, where the derrick stood high in the sky. I peered through the brush and saw JD and Hadley near the cellar. I walked onto the location nervously, down to the substructure next to my bosses.
"Where the hell have you been?" JD barked.
"Ran off into the woods."
"Get back upstairs. We gotta get this pipe on the bank."
"What about the H2S?"
"That’s the fourth time that thing’s went off in the past eight hours," Hadley groused. He looked at the Hydrogen Sulfide detector in his right hand. "All false alarms. I gotta recalibrate the bastard. This down time’s a bitch."
I was doubling for Turbo because he was short his chain-hand. He put the boots to him the night before. The punk ended up in the hospital when Turbo was done with him: busted ribs, nose, and jaw.
"He was an okay roughneck at first. Hired him off the list." Turbo spit between his boots. "He talked a good story, like a lotta guys. Then he showed his true colors. Pee Wee was carrying him on trips. His feet flew off the floor every time they jerked the slips. Pee Wee knew what to do. Laid the sorry bugger out with the slips yesterday."
I worked with Pee Wee on Rig 6 when I was a green chain-hand. He was one of the best roughnecks I ever worked with. Every man I’ve known called Pee Wee was a no neck monster and he was no exception. He was a human bull dozer, feats of strength unimaginable. Once he carried two BOP flanges two hundred yards across the location, one in each hand at 250 pounds each. I called him ‘sir’ after that.
Pee Wee had been a worm for five years and was content with the job since he was missing his right eye, lost to a wicker while using a cable cutter. Had he switched to throwing chain, Pee Wee couldn’t have seen what was going on.
You’ll get a few warnings, to put out, pull your share of the drill pipe slips, then you’ll be wearing them. It’s an old trick: you reach down to jerk the slips and just as the driller lifts up, you grab your handle with both hands and pull for all you’re worth. Since he’s barely lifting, the slips shoot out of the rotary table waist high, directly at the slouch. He doesn’t have time to react—170 pounds of hinged bulk laying him out—the center section slammed onto his crotch. Arms and legs flailing, there’s no easy way to get out from beneath them and the man that threw them on you won’t be helping. And you may not need that vasectomy your wife’s been nagging you about...
Turbo laughed. "Then Pee Wee got in his face, all splayed out. ‘I told you to put out on ‘em. Sorry ass pansy.’ We hit the tavern after work and he had an attitude. He knew better than to mouth off to me or my boys so he took it out on a waitress. Started lipping off to her, then raised his hand as she brought us a round. Like he was gonna hit her. That’s when I took him outside for a walk. No reason to be rude to a woman. Or threaten her. Ever!" he ranted. "Especially a waitress! Scurvy parasite..." Turbo carved the top off a fresh tin of Copenhagen with his jack knife, and held it out, his hands shaking. I took a pinch and nodded.
"He was gonna hit her?"
"Sure acted like it. I took him back inside after I was done with him. Made him apologize to her before I dropped him off at the hospital. Should’ve left him laying in the parking lot. He was even afraid to fight. We got into it three nights ago with a seismic crew at the Inn. The coward didn’t even get in a swing. Lukewarm bastards like that make me sick. Guys that do as little as possible. Just enough to keep from getting run off. No pride at all in what they do. In any industry. Not just out here. You’ve seen ‘em. What makes a man like that tick?" He took a drink of coffee. "Like they’re saving up their energy for days off or retirement. Maybe they’ll take up running marathons when they’re seventy? They sure as hell don’t belong on a drilling rig."
Word about their scrap with the cable-draggers was big news on the rig. We were drilling a well for Mobil near Jonesville, tucked in between Hillsdale and Bundy Hill. It was too far to drive so we were all living out of motels.
The story was all second hand since Turbo didn’t go to the Redwood like the rest of us. He was quirky when it came to bars, refusing to set foot in a tavern with windows. Turbo broke out for Larry Hubbard when he was seventeen; dropped out of high school to work in the fields. Larry was the biggest, meanest, roughneck in the oil patch in the sixties and seventies. He was all of 6 foot 7, 260 pounds, a booming voice... They say some weevils wet themselves when he cut loose on them. Even the cops were afraid of him.
Turbo had been a worm for two months when they got into it with some farmers at the Horse Shoe in Marion; they beat the hell out of them. The sodbusters returned, armed with scatterguns and blew the windows out of the place. Turbo stood near the bar, looking around for his leader. "What do we do now Larry?" he shouted.
Larry was crouched underneath the pool table. "Get under a table you fool!"
Turbo and his daylight crew walked into the Jonestown Inn after a cold January shift. They were regulars at the windowless beer garden, and ordered beer and burgers as the waitress scribbled on her pad. She turned and walked towards the kitchen, then paused. "Oh yeah," she said, turning to face the crew. "There’s some roughnecks at the table near the door."
"No shit?" Turbo looked across the bar. "Didn’t know there were any other rigs around here."
It’s not often that you cross paths with crews from other operations. Kindred souls who speak the language; often men you’ve worked with at one time or another. Turbo had worked for two-dozen companies in his decade in the patch. There weren’t many hands he didn’t know.
Turbo walked over to their table and spun an empty chair around, sitting down backwards. He noticed straightaway that they were using beer glasses. He’d never known a roughneck to use a glass—roughnecks drink straight from the bottle.
"You guys roughnecks?"
"Yeah. Who the hell’s asking?" the biggest one responded.
"Turbo Justin. That’s who. What rig do you work on?"
"None of your business."
Turbo glanced at their green coats, draped on the chairs behind them. Inter-State Seismic.
"You guys cable-draggers?"
The smallest one shrugged his shoulders and looked away.
Turbo walked back to the table and smiled. He took off his wristwatch and laid it on the table next to his beer. His derrick-hand, Bobby, knew immediately there was trouble. Turbo’s dad had given him the watch when he made driller and he only took it off to fight.
"We have some impostors," Turbo said. "Hurry up if you want some."
Seismic crews mapped the state’s underground, searching for oil by setting off dynamite charges after placing sensor boxes within 500 square yards of the blast. The sensors are attached by thick cables to a truck loaded with computers—thus the name cable-draggers. Their objective was to spot domes in the oil and gas bearing formations underground, lowering the chances of drilling dry holes. Turbo had no problem with the profession of cable-dragging, or any job for that matter. Just don’t call yourself a roughneck.
Turbo walked up to the bar and laid down two Franklins. "Could you put those burgers on hold sweetheart? We’ve got some garbage to take out." The waitress looked down at the cash laying on the oak bar. He winked and smiled. "Buy us some time before calling the law? And cover any damage that might take place..."
Pee Wee stood and stretched while Bobby, who was even bigger than Pee Wee, finished off his beer, and inserted a pinch of Skoal.
Turbo looked at the chain-hand. "Put down your beer son. It’s time to scrap."
He looked across the bar at the seismic crew. "But there’s seven of them and only four of us."
Turbo rolled up his sleeves. "We’ve got ‘em right where we want ‘em."
The biggest one stood as Turbo charged the table, catching a hard right fist between the eyes, crumbling before he could set down his beer glass. It’s a rule of thumb when you’re outnumbered in a brawl: sooner or later you’re gonna have to do business with the big boy, so get him while you’re fresh.
Turbo was on to the second seismic hand, when one made the mistake of sucker punching Bobby in the ear as he waded into the fray. He grinned wide, grabbed him by the neck, and punished the jukebox repeatedly with his head. "I’ll bet you like disco, you phony bastard."
The fight went out of the other four impersonators, and they flushed off towards the door. Pee Wee captured one with a horse collar tackle just as he was going down the steps outside. He lost his grip on the cable-dragger as they landed hard onto the gravel parking lot. He was stupid enough to take a swing at Pee Wee, as he lay on his back. He caught his fist in mid air, then broke his nose and dislodged two teeth with a left hook. Pee Wee picked him up by the collar, plunging his face into a snow bank. "We better get this bleeding stopped."
The chain-hand stood by the door with his hands in his pockets as the other three escaped in a pickup.
Turbo hauled the big one out, semiconscious through the doorway in a headlock, shoving him down the steps. He smiled. "Better give him some air Pee Wee."
He gulped in a breath as Pee Wee lifted the coward’s head, blood crusted snow clung to his eyebrows and hair.
Bobby lugged the last two out by their boots, down the concrete steps to the parking lot. He held up one of their cowboy boots, which had slipped off during the skirmish. "Look," he laughed. "Tony Llamas... They ain’t even real leather."
The four cable-draggers were laid out side by side. The way dead outlaws were laid out in the old west to be photographed. Blood stained the snow beneath their heads as Turbo paced in front of them, his arms crossed.
"Listen up, you milksop sons of bitches. We didn’t get our scars by pulling on cables. The next time you come in here, tell these girls who gave you these scars."
Turbo glared at the chain-hand. "Don’t ever come up empty handed again."
Turbo and his crew walked back inside. He stopped at the bar and picked up one of the hundred dollar bills, and pushed the other one towards the waitress. "Will that cover the mess?"
She looked at the upended tables and chairs; a few broken bottles and beer glasses littered the floor. Patches of foam soaked into the ancient carpet.
"Yeah," she smiled. "That’ll be fine. Would you guys like another round?"
The daylight studs settled back at their table as the waitress delivered a tray of beer. "Ready for those burgers?"
Turbo and his shorthanded crew were headed to the house two days later, going on days off. A temporary sign sat on the shoulder of US-12, just past the Bundy Hill Truck Stop. Seismic Crew Operating. Please Turn Off CB Radios. A thick cable was duct taped to the asphalt just past the sign. Turbo pulled his rig-beater to a stop and backed up to the cable. He threw it in park and grinned. "Want to drag some cables boys?"
Pee Wee followed him to the back of the car and the two men ripped the wire free from the asphalt. They placed it over the bumper hitch and climbed back into the rig-ride.
The cable barely put up a fight as Turbo launched forward in low gear, stopping as the odometer clicked off two-tenths of a mile.
"Wonder if they hung on or just let go?"
Pee Wee unhooked it from the hitch and Turbo cogged the car into drive.
"Roughnecks my ass."
To read more of my stories, click on the link below to get the paperback version of my book. It's a book written by a roughneck, for roughnecks. I hope that you like it. Greig Grey