I Can't Drive Thirty-Five Back to Articles
I Can’t Drive Thirty-Five
By Greig Grey
The worm was riding shotgun and held the magnetic yellow flasher in place on the vinyl roof of my rig-beater.
“My hand’s getting cold,” he whined.
I tossed him a pair of new safety gloves. “Here you pansy ass,” I said. “You make it a month without getting hurt. You’ll get a dozen pairs.”
He was as pale as paste and had vomited six times so far, managing to get his head out of the window each time. He knew better than to puke inside of my rig-ride. “I’ll rub your nose in it,” I warned.
We had closed down the bar the night before and were on tour at daybreak to move the unit. I took a pinch of Copenhagen and offered him a dip. “This will help your hangover.” He shook his head and started to retch. I laughed. “If you’re gonna run with the hounds, you gotta quit acting like a pup.”
We looked like a legal operation, cruising east on the four lane stretch of I-94. The unit had a “Wide Load” banner draped across the back, with four ancient orange, dope smeared flags propped into their corner pockets of the oversized portable rig. Our tool-pusher, Denny Mills led the way in a company truck with his yellow flasher rotating on the cab and I followed behind. Steve Pierce, my driller was at the helm of the rig, cruising along at thirty-five miles an hour.
I reached into the back seat and pulled an oak branch from beneath a heap of empty beer cans. I had whittled it to fit between the driver’s seat and the gas pedal. I propped it into place and stretched my legs—poor man’s cruise control. I lit a cigarette and plugged a Hank Junior cassette in and cranked it full blast: “A Country Boy Can Survive…”
There were five counties and seventy-five miles separating us from our new well north of Hartland. We had just plugged a dry hole in Jonesville, and rigged the operation down.
We had figured that a weekend off was in order. All twenty loads had been moved by our fleet of trucks, and the unit, a permit load was all that was left. Since it was a Friday, we’d have to wait until Monday to move it, once the office arranged for the permits required for each county we had to maneuver through.
Time off to head to the house, cash a paycheck, pay some bills, head to the laundromat, sight in deer rifles for the upcoming season, get drunk, and chase down a bar maid or two. Not necessarily in that order.
Our weekend plans went to hell when big Tony’s voice crackled over the radio. “Make it happen,” was all that was said. When Tony spoke, it was the gospel.
We all knew what it meant, except for our worm, still shiny and new. We’d thrown so much bullshit his way, he wasn’t sure what to believe. It meant we’d be staying here in a motel for another night and moving the unit at dawn. Without any permits…
Tony Howard was our Drilling Superintendent and our idol. One might safely say he was our God. A legendary oil man from west Texas, with four decades in the industry. He was the lone survivor of a blowout north of Odessa. His back was scarred from the burns when the well torched while he was taking the Geronimo cart down.
And Tony was a real cowboy before he went to work in the patch. He was the Texas saddle bronc champion at the age of eighteen. He wore custom fit cowboy boots: Lee Miller, JB Hill, Frommer, and Beck. Full quill ostrich, alligator, crocodile, elephant, eel, python, and shark, to name a few.
Tony commanded respect. Not by shouting or screaming, but his mere presence. A towering frame, at six foot four, 240 pounds, nothing baffled him. If Tony was summoned to the rig, he’d figure the problem out in twenty minutes or less, and God help the bastard who didn’t.
We weren’t sure how he ended up here in Michigan, but we were glad he was ours.
Tony was an outlaw at heart. Hell, we all were, but this wasn’t just bending the rules. This was a flat out, blatant: “In-Your-Face-Johnny-Law-! Screw-You-! Drive-Down-Fifty-Miles-of-Interstate-Highway-And Twenty-Five-Miles-Of-County-Roads-! I’ve-Got-Your-Permits-Right-Here-Pal-! Up-Yours-!” bootleg rig move.
I had been part of plenty of bootleg moves before. Mostly under twenty miles, through the back woods of northern Michigan, keeping to side roads, avoiding the major highways. Bootlegs were a gamble that the MPSC wouldn’t be on the prowl, and avoiding the costs that each county charges for a permit, and the compliancy to Big Government. But any branch of law enforcement could pull us over and if they did, they’d hit the jackpot.
Even with a permit, Rig 2 or the Deuce as it was known, was trouble. It was the oldest rig in our fleet and violations would cover every inch of it, and the list would be long. The rig didn’t have headlights or taillights, rotted tires, straight pipe exhausts, and brakes, or more like what brakes? It would be hauled off to an impound lot and to rescue it back into service, either every infraction would need to be repaired, or a compliant, corrupt judge would have an offshore bank account, a new hunting cabin, or both.
It would be serious jail time for everyone involved if we were captured, but Tony’s hands would be clean. “Plausible deniability” is the government term, used to absolve the brass of covert CIA operators—caught in black op, off the book missions. Any one of us would take the fall for Tony if we had to. Not even Pierce would point the finger at our boss if we were nabbed. Roughnecks may have our faults—but we sure as hell ain’t narcs.
So it was an “Act like everything is normal. Nothing to worry about here sir,” permitless move.
Things were going smooth so far: cars blew past us, cruising at a steady thirty-five miles an hour—the top speed allowed for a permit load. I kept my beater four hundred yards behind the rig. I had learned a long time ago to keep my distance. Following too close has its hazards. I was directly behind Rig 3 when a right angle drive gearbox exploded on US-27 north of St. Johns. Parts suddenly unloaded from the back end of the old Ideco 800: drive shafts, universal joints, bearings, and screw drives. I hit the brakes and swerved into the ditch, narrowly missing a two foot chunk of cast iron housing. Hunks of shrapnel were spread out across the two lane freeway—it looked like a rummage sale laid out there on the blacktop. Me and the worm were gathering up the biggest pieces when he nearly got hit by a station wagon, diving into the ditch when the big car swerved.
“I knew this job was dangerous,” he shouted, gasping for breath. “But hell… I didn’t know I’d be dodging traffic too.”
We had a permit for that move but still got wrote up for two dozen violations.
We had put twenty miles of interstate behind us, with no hassles from the law yet. And so far, no mechanical issues with the relic. Then Pierce started picking up the pace. I plucked the oak branch from my gas pedal and accelerated up to forty, then forty-five. “What the hell,” I muttered. Then a burst of black smoke and sparks shot out of the stacks, and the lunatic pulled into the passing lane. Steve blew past Denny and a string of semis. “The crazy son of a bitch has snapped…”
Pierce had told me she’d go seventy, but I didn’t believe him. Top end was forty on most of our portables but the Deuce was a lightweight, by far the smallest rig in our fleet. A National double with a sub too short for a mouse hole, so the kelly had to be rat holed on connections. It was powered by a single V-12 Detroit with a six speed Allison tranny. Steve was sure as hell proving me wrong.
He appeared to going seventy-five as I backed away. The derrick was bucking hard against the half inch chain holding it in place. The chest high aircraft tires in the front don’t absorb bumps in the road, they magnify them. Scrub brushes and dope pails flew off the back, landing in the highway, ditch, and median. Then the flags parted company, followed by a chain boomer that I steered hard to avoid. A hundred feet of cat line was dragging behind the rig as Pierce was off to the races. Cars swerved and tires screeched, trying to avoid the debris. Then the “Wide Load” sign ripped free and planted onto my windshield, blocking my view. I veered onto the shoulder and down into the ditch before it flew off. The worm’s side of the windshield was spider webbed from an I-94 road sign I took out.
“Holy hell… “ I threw it into park, unplugged the flasher, and killed the tunes. “Pull that thing inside,” I shouted at the worm.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
“No. This is pretty much how it always goes…”
I merged back onto the interstate, the unit barely a speck in a fog of smoke, still in the fast lane. I wanted no affiliation with this outfit when the screws pulled Pierce over. A judge would lock him away for a year for this deed—even if we had permits. Denny would go too, with the company logo painted on the doors of his truck. I’d go unnoticed with the flasher off of my car, and planned on hitting the nearest tavern when the sirens wailed.
Pierce was an unpredictable, loose cannon but I never thought he’d pull something like this. I had only been his derrick-hand for two months. Holes were scarce when the price of crude plummeted and most of our rigs got stacked. “I need a derrick-hand,” he said, when I first spoke with him on the phone. After a few hours of working with him, it was obvious he needed a psychiatrist too. Along with some Brake Handle 101.
We got into it good my first day. We were tripping in the hole and I had just loaded the eight inch bottom hole collar. The boys on the floor were making up the bit, and I held the collar with a wrap and a half, so it wouldn’t slam into the back of the derrick when Steve torqued it up tight. Then I loaded the second stand, slammed the side door elevators, hooked the safety chain and pointed to the sky. I looked down as the boys stabbed it and passed the chain up. Then Pierce hit the cat head lever, with the elevators still tight against the collar sub. With the spring open! The drill collar was turning to the right while the sub sat stationary.
The hair stood up on the back of my neck. “Whoa!” I shouted down. “Lower the blocks you dip shit!” I leaned out and tightened the collar sub by hand, nearly unscrewed. Then I loaded the third stand and ditto, he did the same thing. I shouted down again. “Lower the blocks you moron. You’re gonna kill someone!”
Then Pierce leaned back and shouted up, “What are you? A cry baby derrick-hand up there?”
I took off my belt after he torqued the stand, and stepped off the diving board onto the elevators and rode the stand down, hanging onto the bails. Time for some face time with my new boss. I jumped off just as the floor-hands set the slips.
I looked at the chain-hand and worm. “Here’s the story boys. I don’t know how long this idiot’s been on the crow bar. I really don’t care, but these subs ain’t torqued and bright boy over here isn’t lowering the elevators when you’re making up the collars with the chain. With the spring open no less. So the sub won’t just come unscrewed. It’s gonna shoot up in the air and land on somebody.” I pointed at Pierce. “I could give a shit if it hits him. We’ll bury the sorry bastard off in the woods with the D-6. But I don’t want to see you guys getting killed.”
I threw off my gloves and got in Steve’s face. “Cry baby derrick-hand huh? Care to repeat that?” His face turned red, his mouth wide open. “You ever say that again, you’ll be eating dinner through a straw.”
I slammed the elevators shut, climbed on and pointed to the sky. “Going up.” They aren’t called elevators for nothing.
We got along fine after that.
The Deuce had been making hole for a decade and she was showing her age. A drilling rig’s age should be quantified in dog years. It was like going back in time working on the old rig. The board was spongy from being hit with the blocks, welds on top of welds. Bent to hell fingers. No bottom doghouse or lockers; we had to change up in the generator shed. The pit doors were constantly springing leaks, lugging buckets of sand from the bank to heal them up. No chains on the pit risers, constantly fishing them off bottom with the worm rod. The radiator was rotted on the draw works motor. Seals were gone in the rotary table, chain drives, and gear boxes. It wasn’t uncommon to go through a barrel of 90 weight every morning when the rig got serviced. It had a decent set of pumps though—two identical Emmsco duplexes—the only reason I stayed.
We were the relief crew on the Deuce. You never know what day it is working relief, giving the other crews their time off. You work two daylight tours, then get 24 hours off, followed by two days on evening tour, then 24 off, then two morning tours, with 48 hours off. Then you start all over.
We just happened to be on daylights when the rig was knocked apart, and were in charge of moving the unit. Pierce was supposed to have a Class 1 Operator’s Permit to drive the rig. Hell, he didn’t even have a driver’s license. He had lost it three years ago for multiple scrapes with the law. Steve shouldn’t have been allowed to drive a bicycle, let alone an outfit this big.
I cranked my rig-ride up to eighty-five, trying to get a view through the black smoke. Two dozen cars, and four tractor-trailers were stuck in the muddy median, another two dozen were off into the ditches, and out into corn fields. Then Denny pulled into the passing lane and took off like a streak to chase the freak down. He finally got ahead of Pierce and slowed him down, pulling him off onto the shoulder. I looked in the rearview for flashers, sirens, or any sign of the law as I caught up. So far, the coast was clear so I pulled in behind them. I got out and walked next to the unit as Pierce crawled out of the cab.
There are stages of rage that a man goes through: from one to ten, and Denny was in stage twelve. I walked cautiously towards them, while the worm cowered in my rig-beater. Veins bulged from Denny’s forehead and neck, a dark shade of purple. He was in Pierce’s face, waving his arms wildly, animated and screaming unintelligible words. He looked like Earl Weaver going off on an umpire.
Denny was nobody to mess with when he wasn’t mad. At forty years old, he could still throw the drill pipe slips over a hand rail, or lift a stand of drill pipe with a 48 and hold it for thirty seconds, for enough money. Pierce was a dead man.
I kept my distance, staying back a few paces. No reason to get sprayed by Steve’s blood when Denny started flinging punches. He finally started putting words together after a minute or two.
“If I ever… see that damned… unit… you sonuvabitch… Flying past me… Going seventy-five? I’ll castrate you bastard sonuvabitch…”
Denny was foaming at the mouth, as Pierce stood there with this stupid grin on his face. “She’ll go eighty with a rag soaked in ether on the intake.”
I nervously watched for the cops while Denny continued to rant. The only thing that saved Steve’s life was that we didn’t have permits. We were sitting ducks there on the shoulder and had to get moving or we’d all be wearing prison orange soon. He calmed down after a few minutes and read Pierce the riot act before we got back underway.
Pierce kept the speed at thirty-five as we finished off our run across the Interstate gauntlet and took the Hartland exit after two hours. We maneuvered our way through two small towns, one with a restaurant filled with screws, before finally hitting the gravel road that led to our new hole.
Then just when things couldn’t have gotten stranger, we pulled to a halt on the dusty road. I got out and walked up to see Denny scratching his head. Then it was obvious why we had stopped. A ten ton weight limit bridge was between us and our new home, only two miles away. The unit weighed in at just under two hundred tons. If we had gone the legal route, and got our permits, the county would have steered us around this bridge.
Denny was staring at a county map, spread out on the hood of his truck. He shook his head. “We’re gonna have to drive twenty miles to get around this bastard. Back through town and…”
“I’ll get it across,” Pierce grinned.
My jaw dropped open. “I know your nuts,” I said. “But a ten ton bridge? You’re joking?”
“Hell no. If I get up a good head of steam… It’ll clear. I’ve done it before.”
Denny scoffed at first. “We’ll have to pay for the bridge, and your damned funeral if it caves. The rig… Well it’s a shit pile anyway.
He folded up the map and looked Pierce in the eye. “Listen you goofy bastard. Get her up to forty-five, no faster so the cab makes it over if the bridge gives out. Most of the weight’s in the back.”
The bridge was barely fifty feet across, with sixty-five feet of unit waiting to test the meager eight inch I-beam supports.
I sorted through the tool box on the side of the unit, and dug out a half inch chain boomer and a four foot cheater pipe. I climbed up onto the derrick, wading through the maze of drilling line and fished out the chain that had cut loose on the first joy ride. I threw it over the side and hooked it down under the frame, just behind the ten inch I-beam support stands on each side, the only protection to keep Pierce from getting squashed into moron soup.
I put the four foot cheater onto the boomer and had the worm help me jack on it. After three bites we pulled the chain tight. Then the worm put his head directly in front of the binder handle, just as I was about to give it a rap with the cheater. “Don’t ever put your face there!” I shouted. “That bastard springs loose, it’ll crack your skull.”
Damn, worms are a bitch.
I whacked the boomer handle twice before wrapping the hook end of the chain around it.
I took a step back and lit a Cowboy Killer. “It might hold it down.”
“What happened to the other binder?” Denny asked.
“It’s back on the interstate a ways…”
I kicked the dirt and stared off at the setting sun. I had seen some crazy shit go down in six years, but nothing quite this outrageous. This was noting short of a kamikaze mission.
I nodded at Pierce. “It’s been nice knowing you. Can I have your watch?”
Denny parked on the other side while me and the worm took a seat on a log with a good view of the bridge, the twenty foot drop beneath it, and the small stream flowing below. I unwrapped a bologna sandwich and poured a cup of coffee. “I’d give ten bucks to have a video camera right now.”
“Is he gonna die?” the worm asked.
“Yep. Headed to that oil patch up yonder. Maybe... He’ll be catching samples if he gets in.”
Pierce backed the unit up a quarter of a mile. The crown was sticking out twenty feet in front of the cab, where Pierce sat, barely visible underneath, still sporting the stupid grin.
Smoke belched from the straight pipes as the Deuce lurched slowly forward. I counted as the Allison tranny shifted, the rig gaining speed gradually. It hit sixth—road gear—just as it approached the slight incline, twenty yards from the bridge. Pierce appeared to be going fifty now, and all three sets of steering axles went airborne, three feet off the ground.
I dropped my coffee and stood, afraid to blink at this point. Then the chain holding the derrick down snapped and the mast flew ten feet skyward. The front wheels came down just as they cleared the bridge, and the three drive axles came off the ground, just before they hit the opposite side. The crown dug deep into the gravel, taking out a five foot divot, followed by a horrendous clap of iron thunder when the derrick slammed down hard onto the I-beam support stands. The rear axle duals tagged bottom on the far side of the bridge, leaving a two foot wow in the ancient I-beam supports underneath.
The unit, now clear of the rickety bridge rocked back and forth like a giant Tonka Toy. The derrick made another buck skyward on the last bounce, only five feet this time, followed by another loud crack of iron on iron when the mast came down. This time the support stands buckled, crushing the cab like a styrofoam cup. I winced and turned my head, certain that Pierce was now a dead man.
“Hope he didn’t die with his foot on the gas,” I mumbled.
The motor throttled down to idle, and the Deuce slowed to a halt after clearing the bridge by three football fields.
I walked across the span, pausing to witness the two new craters, authored by our operation—each one six feet in diameter. It was the only spot where the rig’s weight had met the bridge; where the back duals touched down, distributing at least forty tons onto the ancient concrete. It appeared that two explosions had gone off: fractured chunks of cement the size of small white tailed deer were scattered around the holes. I gazed down through the maze of bent rebar, and could see the stream flowing down underneath.
I looked up to see Denny walking slowly towards the cab, and stood there frozen for a moment. Wondering if this would qualify as going out a hero. Even for Pierce... Death is a fact of life in the patch. You’re never sure when or if your number’s gonna be called by The Big Guy. Nobody wants to go down from “human error” or “equipment failure” when your time comes. Not that you have a choice. But you would like to think it would be something heroic—an act of valor. Something like trying to break a man’s fall from the derrick, or rescuing a brother from a blowout, or overcome with H2S. Bringing in a well at the very least. I debated the situation mentally for a few seconds. No. This was an act of stupidity, and I’d chisel “Douche Bag” into his tombstone myself, if someone didn’t beat me to it.
The worm followed as I walked towards the unit, the cab mashed down two feet and a column of steam hissing from the radiator. “You may not want to see this,” I said. He nodded and stayed behind. Hell, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to look.
Then Denny shouted, “Grab the sledge and rig bar! This son of a bitch ain’t dead!”
I sprinted to his pickup and grabbed the tools.
“Get me out of here,” Pierce howled from inside of the cab.
The glass was smashed from the three windows and the door was bowed out six inches by the latch. I stuck the rig bar into the crevice and me and Denny put our weight into it. The door winked slightly and Pierce let out another howl. “Help!”
“Shut the hell up or I’ll light this bitch on fire with you inside of it,” Denny shouted.
We throttled the door for thirty minutes with the eight pounder, and finally pried it open as Steve groaned inside. He was balled up under the steering wheel, down by the foot pedals, like a possum in the fetal position.
We stared in disbelief. “How the hell did you get down there?”
Pierce crawled out, appearing unscathed, with no blood leaking, and his limbs still intact. “Damned if I know,” he moaned, holding his back, attempting to stand upright. “Did the derrick break loose?”
“Oh hell yeah,” I said. “Bucked at least ten feet on the first hop. Pretty impressive.”
Pierce grimaced and finally stood up straight, still clutching his back.
“Walk it off you little bitch!” Denny fumed. “Try and draw comp and I’ll slit your throat, after I castrate you. You volunteered for this.”
“I’ll be pissing blood for a few days…” Steve groaned. “But I’m good.”
Denny climbed up onto the running board to survey the damage. “The derrick looks alright,” he said. “She’ll need a new radiator before we can spud in. The cab and derrick supports can wait.”
Me and the worm went to work on the bridge, lugging the concrete shards back into the holes, like fitting a giant jigsaw puzzle together. I stood back and looked it over, craters knee deep where the duals touched down. “Well, it ain’t pretty,” I said. “But that’s as good as we’re gonna do considering. Throw those last few chunks down into the river.” I stuffed a handful of Mail Pouch into my jaw. “Hell I wouldn’t ride a mule across this thing.”
Denny steered the Deuce the final two miles, standing on the running boards with the motor at idle. He pulled onto the location just before dark.
The farmer walked across his corn field, onto the bare patch of freshly turned dirt where we’d be drilling the well. “Didn’t expect you guys until Monday afternoon,” he said. “Have a memorable trip?”
I nodded and lit a cigarette. “You might say that…”
“Which way to town?” Denny asked.
“Six miles that way,” he replied, pointing in the direction of the bridge.
“How far the other way?” he asked.
“Ten miles. Why?”
“We heard that bridge ain’t safe.”
Greig Grey recently published a book about his oil drilling adventures. It’s titled “Oil Field Trash and Other Garbage” and is available at CreateSpace and Amazon.com.