The message coming out of Northern Alberta in the mid 70’s was a clarion call for young men such as Bill M. and myself. Everyone seemed to be talking about the “Big Money” being made in the Oil Sands north of Edmonton, and my friend Bill and I felt we were wasting our time slinging steak and lobster at The Keg in Richmond.
“I’ve heard of some guys making over $20 an hour”, said Bill, “starting wages are like $7 or $8 but there’s a lot of overtime” “Time and a half, and double time”, I said, “and I’ve heard that once you get in with a drilling company you can move up pretty quickly” “And if you’re good and stick with it, you can get in with better companies paying more money,” said Bill. We both paused, and salivated a bit over the prospect of “Big Money” before we took another sip of our beers.
Our Friday night shift at The Keg was over, all the cocktail girls and waiters had cashed out and were sitting around drinking, chatting and listening to Morris and Wetback (as he liked to be known) play guitar and sing. It wasn’t enough that Bill and I made decent money (with our wages and tips) surrounded by affable college-bound co-workers, in a warm, clean, safe and fun environment – no – our perceptions were being obscured by the overpowering lure of Big Money working in the oilpatch. “My cousin is working on a rig and he made enough to hitchhike around Europe for a year,” said Sue P., one of my favourite cocktail waitresses, and unfortunately, Morris’s girlfriend. “A buddy of mine just got back from Fort McMurray after 4 months as a Roughneck and made enough to buy a Camaro and pay for a year’s tuition at UBC”, said Higgs, taking a big gulp from his Harvey Wallbanger.
For Bill and I these additional stories added fuel to the fire of our 20-something, young male dreams of cash, cars and holidays. “Maybe we could earn enough to pay for a University education so we can become professionals and not have to work as waiters or Roughnecks”, I said. Bill pondered my comment for a moment, took another swig of his beer and said, “Naaah, that’s crazy dude,” he said, with a slightly inebriated smile on his face, “think of all that cash – we’re talking Big Money working on a rig…dream a little Georgie – maybe get outta that basement suite, rent a bigger apartment and ditch that crappy stereo you have for a new Kenwood… babes like a guy with money.” Large carbon footprints, were not yet looked upon with derision.
I knew Bill and I were on different life trajectories, but he spoke a mean game – I was sold on the idea. Without even really knowing what a Roughneck did, two soft-handed urban dreamers from Vancouver, decided to go and find out.
In short order, we quit our jobs, gave notice on our living arrangements, said goodbye to friends and family, stuffed some clothes and a toothbrush into a couple of backpacks, threw them – and a dozen cans of beer, or “road pops” as they were called – onto the back seat of my ’68 Volkswagen Station Wagon, and we were off.
Edmonton was our destination, where both Bill and I had family to stay with while we began our job search – calling up drilling companies out of the yellow pages that would hire untrained workers. How hard could “Roughnecking” be, we thought. We’d both had post-high school labourer type jobs in construction, pulp mills, logging camps and fishboats. We imagined that this would be a variation on a theme – resource extraction, another notable Canadian pastime as “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. Heavy physical labour with small groups of like-minded young men, good wages & benefits, sleeping and eating in bunkhouses away from civilization, with the constant threat of death or dismemberment lurking among machinery.
Before the Coquihalla connector was built our fastest option was a 1300 km trip to Edmonton on the Trans-Canada Highway – which we broke into 2 days with an overnight camping stop in Banff. Once you get beyond Hope, the scenery improves immensely, and we chose the Fraser Canyon through Spuzzum, Hell’s Gate and Kamloops into Thompson Country, and then on to Salmon Arm, Sicamous and Revelstoke on our way through the Kootenay -Columbia District, and the Rockies into Banff.
Under normal circumstances we would’ve turned this road trip through paradise into an open-ended journey of adventure, discovery and fun – camping, drinking beer, getting high and trying to meet girls, but we were on a mission and seemed unusually fixated (unusual for me at least, maybe Bill wasn’t cursed with my easily distracted Butterfly Brain) on getting to the oil patch, finding jobs and making money. “Let’s keep our eyes on the prize”, said Bill, “once me make Big Bucks in Alberta we can come back here and do it up in style.”
The trip from Banff to Edmonton the following day was relatively uneventful – once we hit Calgary we turned north on Highway 2 and quickly acclimatized to the big vistas and long straight highways of Prairie travel, travelling in short order through Red Deer, passing Ponoka and Wetaskiwin enroute to Edmonton.
My uncle Carl and aunt Roberta – who lived in Sherwood Park, on the Eastern outskirts of Edmonton – had kindly offered to put me up for as long as it took to find work, but my first order of business was to drop Bill off at his cousin’s place in Garneau, an area of Edmonton just south of the Saskatchewan River. “We made it man”, I said, “got here in one piece” “Hard to say how long it’s going to take to find a job, but I’ll probably start calling around after I visit with my relatives tonight, how about you?”. “Yeah, I don’t want to hang around my cousins any longer than I have to, I’ll start job-hunting tomorrow”, he replied, “Here’s Gary’s phone number…let me know how you’re doing”, “Likewise”, I said, “you’ve got my uncles number but let’s check in” “Who knows, maybe we’ll get a job on the same rig.” “Ha ha!”, that would be great,” said Bill, “unlikely…but great…I’d probably move up the ladder faster than you and become your boss,” he said.” “Great”, I said, “then you could promote me”. We both laughed as I pulled up to the curb outside Gary’s place. Bill grabbed his bag from the back seat and popped out of the car. “Good luck man…stay safe”, he said, “you too bro’”, I replied. We shook hands and he turned and left – I never saw him again.*
After two days on the road, a big family meal and lively conversation with Carl & Roberta and my cousins, I was ready to hit the sack. “I think I’m going to call it a night.”, I said, “gotta get up early tomorrow to start calling around.” “Whatever you want to do,” said Roberta, “our home is your home, take as much time as you need…I wish we had contacts in the industry that we could give you but we don’t – we do know that they’re hiring right now and there are lots of jobs” “That’s good to hear, thanks a lot guys” I said, “I really appreciate your hospitality – Good Night.”
After coffee and a hearty breakfast the next morning, I grabbed the telephone, pen and paper and the Yellow Pages, and sat at the kitchen table, to start calling Drilling companies, getting names, and making notes – in what I thought would be an arduous, week-long search for employment. The first company I called was Gunnarson Drilling and the conversation went something like this,
“Hi my name’s George, I’m looking for work as a Roughneck, are you guys hiring?” “Yup sure are, have you ever worked as a Roughneck?”
“Yes I have”, I lied.
“Great, when could you start?”
“Immediately”, I replied.
“Have you got a car?”, he asked.
“Sure do – a blue Volkswagen Station Wagon”
“Ok, go to the corner of Jasper Avenue and 106th Street at 7am tomorrow – heading west – and one of our trucks will meet you there. It’s a dark brown GMC truck with Gunnarson Drilling on the door. Mike will be driving…he’ll wave at you when he sees you. You’re going to follow him to the drill site about 3 hours west of Edmonton past Whitecourt…make sure you’ve got gas”
And that was it…I had a job.
I spent the day getting ready for this unexpected escalation of opportunity. I’d never been hired before – sight unseen – so had to make sure I was as prepared as my limited knowledge of the job would allow. “Hmm…dirty yellow coveralls, hard hat and Dayton work boots from my logging camp days…socks, underwear, pants, shirts, harmonicas…yeah, all set”
I called Bill to let him know that I’d landed work – he hadn’t started his own search yet and was a bit surprized by my speedy hiring. “That’s wild man, and you haven’t even met these guys yet”, he said, “what about paperwork? Not even a job application?” “The guy on the phone said that the guy in the truck would have a form for me to fill out”, I replied, “You should give these guys a call, maybe they need more workers”. He wrote down the name of the company, “I’ll try them tomorrow, thanks for the lead…good luck bro’ gotta run the cousin’s here” “You too man”, I said, “take me for a ride in your Lamborghini when I see you in Vancouver!” We both laughed and hung up the phones – I never talked to him again.*
Carl & Roberta were also surprised (and likely secretly relieved) that I’d landed work so quickly. “I knew the oil patch was hot, but I’ve never seen hiring in action…sight unseen & over the phone…that’s incredible”, said Carl, as we sat having an unexpected final meal together before I left for the rigs. “And, you just meet these guys, in their truck, at a corner downtown…and wave to each other?”, he asked incredulously. “Yeah”, I replied, “I know it sounds weird, but I’ll probably run over and introduce myself, before I follow them into the Alberta wilderness…I guess they needed to know if I’d be riding in the truck or following in my own vehicle.” And then, as an afterthought, “Maybe you guys should write down the name of the company in case I die or go missing.” “Oh George,” groaned Roberta as she rolled her eyes, “that’s not very comforting, I hope you’re just kidding.” “Don’t worry guys, I’m just pulling your leg, I said laughing, “I’ll be just fine, but I do think you should have the company name, here, I’ve written it down.” “And I’m not sure if it was a good idea to lie about your work experience,” said Roberta, “they might expect you to hit the ground running” “Not to worry guys,” I said cockily, “I’ve had introductory labor type jobs before and you pretty much learn everything by noon on the first day and then just repeat that …or fake it til you make it, as they say…and I think hiring a guy over the phone shows they don’t expect much.” “Hmmm, maybe…”, said Roberta, “…hey, why don’t we have a look at your repetitive work skills in action”, she continued, “…you can give us a hand with these dishes again tonight.” We all laughed, and rose to clear the table.
I got to the appointed meeting place in fairly short order the next morning, parked and waited for Mike. As planned, a dirty, well-used, late model GMC Truck, with assorted oil patch-related gear piled in the cargo bed, pulled up beside me around 7, and a bearded 30-ish guy opened his window and said, “Hey, are you George?” “Yes”, I nodded. “Nice to meet you…I’m Mike, just keep following my truck until we get to the site parking area, it’s about a 3-hour drive west of here along Highway 43…are you all gassed up?” “Sure am,” I nodded again. And we were off.
We followed the Yellowhead Highway west for about an hour before hanging a right at Manly Corner when we hit the 43. The region is a checkerboard of large farms and flat prairie scrubland before it transitions into pine forest dotted with stands of Trembling Aspen and Balsam Poplar. By the time we hit Whitecourt and crossed the Athabasca River we’d left the better part of the farmland behind and were into a region of active drilling, extraction and exploration. Somewhere between Two Creeks and Fox Creek – essentialy in the middle of nowhere – Mike hung a sharp right onto a muddy unpaved single lane road and headed north into the bush. I followed as best I could, bumping and swerving in the rutted track until we hit a clearing which was used as a parking and staging area. Mike stopped in the middle of the parking area and motioned for me to park my car off to the side, gather my gear and hop into the truck with him for the final leg of the trip.
I’m a fairly affable guy, some might even say “chatty” but I could tell from Mike’s more taciturn demeanor that bubbly conversation was not in the cards. “How much further to the rig?”, I asked, “About another 2 miles, your Volkswagen wouldn’t’ve made it…it get’s pretty boggy”, he replied, as he gunned the engine and carried on down the road. “Jesus, I thought, how much worse can this road get?”
It didn’t take long to find out. They’d had a heavy rain the night before and the road ahead– after we left the parking area – looked like a stream. Mike did the best he could, swerving, navigating and avoiding the worst of the sucking bog and giant puddles, but eventually the spinning of the tires and lack of forward movement let us know we were stuck. “Shit,” said Mike, “it’s gotten a hell of a lot worse since I was here 4 days ago…oh well” Without missing a beat he reached for his walkie talkie. “Anybody there?… crackle, crackle…”Hello! Dave!…you there?” And in fairly short order, “Hey…Mike is that you? Where are ya?” “I’m in a company truck with the new guy, stuck in the mud about a mile from you…can you come and get us?” “Uhh sure,” replied Dave … crackle, crackle…”I’ll fire up the Caterpillar and see you in about 20”
We hopped back in the truck waiting to be rescued. I shared a bit of small talk with Mike and we exchanged basic info about ourselves while we waited. Where we were from (he was from Newfoundland), what his position was on the rig (he was a Motorman – responsible for engine maintenance), and how long he’d been working in the fields. He’d started as a Roughneck 5 years earlier and had worked his way up….and showed no sign of surprise when I told him I was brand new to rig work. “Well,” he said, “I started the same as you…you gotta start somewhere, they don’t send you to Roughneck school…it’s pretty basic work, you’ll catch on…just try not to get injured.” Good advice I thought, but not exactly comforting.
Before long a big yellow dozer came slowly but surely down the road towards us, grinding away and belching diesel, and seemingly oblivious to the 4-wheel drive crippling conditions upon which it travelled effortlessly. Upon arrival, Dave hopped off the Cat, teased Mike for getting stuck, shook my hand in greeting, then released the winch, and let out enough wire to secure the front of our truck and drag us back to camp.
There was no rest for the road-weary, once we arrived in camp, we parked the truck, I was shown to my bunk in a 4-man trailer to drop off my stuff, and then followed Mike to the cookhouse trailer to grab a bite of lunch and meet the other crew before I started my shift. Dave who towed us into camp was another roughneck and was already face deep into a bowl of chili, as was Leasehand Andy – or handy Andy – as he was known, Mike, was already eating at the communal table, deep in conversation with Derrickhand Steve. I sat with my plastic tray loaded with basic camp food and slowly familiarized with the others I’d be working with. “The Rig Manager doesn’t join us too often, he seems to like his peace and quiet,” said Dave, “Which is kinda crazy when you work on a noisy oil rig that operates 24/7,” countered Mike, “Anyone seen Brandon?” Brandon, the Tool Push, or Driller as they are now known, was the crew’s boss, who worked under the supervision of the Rig Manager. Just as the crew speculated on his whereabouts – which included mostly vulgar observations about Brandon’s bodily functions – a wiry hawk-faced man in his late 30’s opened the door, scanned the room quickly and, gesturing at me, said “You…new guy…when you’re done eating come and meet me on the platform.”
Not the friendliest of introductions to one’s boss, but not out of my realm of experience. It’s not atypical for niceties to be pared down or eliminated altogether in these “all male” labouring gigs where entry level positions see a pretty high turnover rate, and, as I discovered over lunch, my predecessor, a young guy from Timmins, had just lost four of his upper front teeth in a rig accident when a length of pipe bucked up and knocked them out a few days prior.
My meeting with Brandon was short and to the point. “Ok, new guy…I’m Brandon and I’ll be your boss on this rig, you told head office that you’ve worked on the rigs before…,” he said, looking at me with a mix of scepticism and disdain, “because you’re low man on the totem pole – as long as you can follow instructions from everyone else, even the other roughnecks, you’ll probably do OK” “For now, I want you to join Andy and Dave hauling mud up to the tank, they’ll show you where we keep it.” (“Mud” was a slang term for 100 pound bags of powdered lubricant which was poured into a giant slurry vat and fed into the hole in the earth created by the drilling pipes – acting as a lubricant for the drilling )
As I was soon to discover, Roughneck work alternated between strenuous heavy labour – carrying around 100-pound sacks of mud – tedious low-maintenance cleaning of “the machine”, and nerve wracking, dangerous episodes where the entire crew sprang into action to change lengths of pipe. Dirty dangerous work with slippery mud belching onto the platform while giant clamps and chains were used to unscrew the existing pipe and attach new lengths….and then, repeat this sequence until lunch, dinner or coffee breaks gave welcome respite on the 12 or 16 hour shifts. And why not work for 16 hours? We were so far away from civilization that there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do, except drink – a pastime that I was already quite good at.
Sleep eat work drink…in the mid 70’s, in the wilderness, these four words would define the life of an oil rig worker. Maybe it was just the promise of “Big Money” that kept a lot of men going – as there were no cell phones, internet, or television, it wasn’t the lure of intellectual stimulation. If you were lucky, you made a friend or two. I didn’t stay long enough to find out.
A sore body greeted me upon rising, but I was young and undaunted. The crew and I got up, ate breakfast and headed for the platform. The oil rig is a machine, like a giant car engine, whose sole function is to drill into the earth and push lengths of pipe deeper and deeper through dirt and clay and rock – hundreds or thousands of feet – until oil is struck, and we, the crew, were there to perform our repetitive tasks until that primary mission was accomplished. Perhaps it was this numbing mindlessness that led my fellow roughnecks to seek distraction and entertainment through mischievous pranks. Handy Andy and Dave knew – almost immediately, when I met them in them in the cookhouse the day before– that I wasn’t a seasoned hand at rig work, and was, therefore, an obvious target for their introductory hazing.
The three of us descended from the main platform, and headed for the palettes of Powdered Lubricant Mud to begin our work for the day – each grabbing a 100-pound bag of the stuff, lifting it up to our shoulders and carrying it over to the giant cauldron of bubbling mud, where we would pull out our exacto knives, cut off an end, and dump the fine mixture into the tank to create a perfect lubricant slurry. After repeating this procedure two or three times, Dave and Andy stopped by the palette and Andy said, “Dave, can you do this?”, whereupon he lifted a sack of mud and slowly struggled to raise it over his head in a display of strength and male bravado, before dropping it with a thud back onto the palette. “Piece of cake”, said Dave, as I stood nearby, watching their antics. Dave grabbed a bag and slowly, grunting and grimacing, raised the 100-pound sack until his arms were outstretched over his head in triumph, before he too chucked it back onto the palette. “How about you Bathgate?”, said Andy, “why dontcha show us what Vancouver boys are made of.”
I know how these male prowess challenges work. The gauntlet was thrown and it would’ve been unthinkable for me to decline the invitation, without risk of alienating my new work pals. Participation meant bonding, saying no meant looking like a poor sport, or worse – a fearful weakling. I grabbed a bag.
Looking directly at Andy, who’d started the game and issued the challenge, I put all of my energy and effort into doing “the lift” in two stages, stage one was raising the bag to my chest level and stage two was doing a modified version of a weightlifters clean and jerk motion, dropping slightly, spreading and planting my legs firmly and then using the bi’s, tri’s and pecs to complete the lift. Although I wasn’t a fearful weakling, hefting a 100-pound bag over my head – when my total body weight was likely under 140 pounds – was a little out of my physical comfort zone. Slowly, I inched the bag to my reddened grimacing face, and then grunted and gasped as the bag ascended past my forehead, trembling and quivering as I gave it everything I had to raise it up – almost to extended arm height over my head when suddenly, almost imperceptibly – I heard the sound of Dave’s Exacto knife opening up behind me.
In my focussed preoccupation, I’d forgotten about Dave, who had manoeuvred himself directly behind me, waiting for the perfect moment of bag apogee and victim distraction. With open blade he reached up and slit the bag completely in half releasing its powdery contents above my unwitting head. 100 pounds of fine clay powder began cascading down over my head and body. Luckily my youthful reaction time was better than my dead-lift strength and I threw the bag to the side, avoiding the worst of this slapstick clown moment – my hardhat and the left side of my body bore the brunt of Andy & Dave’s goofy hijinks.
Rule number 2 of male hazing rituals – unless you’ve lost an eye or an appendage, don’t get angry, take it as good-natured ribbing – the prank is not rejection, it is a test. “Hahaha!”, I laughed, “Nice one…do you do that with all the new guys?”. Realizing that I wasn’t about to attack them with my own Exacto knife, or rat them out to Brandon, they too laughed, “Hahahaha!”…you got lucky dude!”, said Dave, “some of the new guys get so covered in this shit they have to go take a shower”, “Powder’s so fine it can stay in your clothes for weeks!,” said Andy. “Anyways boys, that’s enough fun for now”, said Dave, “we gotta keep hauling this stuff or Brandon will rag on us”. And then, it was situation normal, we were back to work like nothing happened – unless I detected a slight warming in my relationship with these two goofs.
Day 3…up at 7, shower, eat breakfast, engage in small talk or, for those nursing hangovers, grunt accordingly and drink lots of coffee. Because I was unaware that alcohol – and drugs – were the sole form of entertainment on the rigs, I didn’t bring an adequate stash of my own, and was – therefore – spared the hangovers typical of my excessive nature. This clarity may have saved life and limb as I learned my duties and responsibilities on the job. My other crew mates were fairly generous and wouldn’t begrudge me swigs of their whiskey as we sat around in our trailers after our shifts were over – I told them I’d pay them back whenever I made it back to the nearest town to stock up during the next rotation – when our three-week shift ended and we got our week off.
In addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner breaks – rig workers also received three 15-minute breaks per 12-hour shift, or four for 16 hours, and these breaks were often taken in a small bunkhouse on the platform to – briefly – escape the heat and clouds of mosquitos in summer, or the biting cold of winter. Usually, a thermos of lukewarm coffee and Styrofoam cups would be waiting there, and, not infrequently, a bottle of whiskey – depending on the predilections of the Tool Push or Rig Manager – ours had both.
After putting in a solid half day of mind-deadening, backbreaking grunt work I decided to head to the bunkhouse for my afternoon coffee. Andy & Dave were nowhere in sight so I assumed I’d find them there – my new best friends. I was half covered in a spew of drying mud that had belched upon me during the last pipe change. I was slowly learning where to position myself during the change to avoid this particular outcome but had miscalculated and had paid – once again – for my lack of experience. As I entered the bunkhouse “the boys” looked up from their coffees, smiled, and Andy said, “Hey man, c’mon in…you should try a little whiskey in your coffee, Bob’s left his bottle here for us to share.” It didn’t take much convincing for me to lively up my coffee so I grabbed the bottle of rye off the shelf and added a stiff two fingers to my half cup of joe and spoonful of Coffee Mate creamer. I sat on the bench, leaned against the wall, sipped my drink, closed my eyes for a moment and said, “Mmm mm, that’s pretty good…good idea” “And, Dude,” said Dave, “when we’re changing pipe you gotta jump back more when it’s being released or you’ll keep getting covered in mud”, “Yeah, thanks man,” I replied, “that shit can really squirt out everywhere…don’t worry I’ll figure it out”
“Hey Dave”, said Andy, “do wanna play “Cuttin’ Rope” while we’re hangin’ out?” “Yeah sure,” said Dave, “we’ve got another 5 or 10 to kill…you got a rope?” “Yeah, there’s one over here below the bench”, replied Andy, “why don’t you grab the axe?” Dave got up from the bench we shared, walked over to the adjacent wall and lifted the fire axe from its hooks, and sat back down. I sat quietly sipping my drink, watching with vague interest. “Here’s a blindfold,” said Andy, as Dave put the axe down and affixed the blindfold over his eyes. “OK, take off your hardhat, and I’ll position the rope,” said Andy, as he laid the rope on the floor a few feet in front of where Dave sat. Dave complied and picked up the axe. Now they had my attention…booze, an axe and a blindfold – what could go wrong?
As Dave held the axe in front of him, Andy grabbed the head of the axe and positioned it right above the rope and touched the axe blade to the rope. “OK, there it is,” said Andy, “you feel that?” “Yup, I think so,” said Dave. “OK, give it your best shot!”, Andy encouraged him. Dave touched the axe blade to the rope several times to get his bearing and then lifted the axe over his head and brought it down forcefully with a resounding CHOP! …cutting halfway through the rope but not, completely chopping it in two which – I assumed was the purpose of this, “Fun for the Whole Family” game. “Not bad,” said Andy, as Dave peaked under his blindfold, “let me have a try.” Dave and Andy exchanged places, as Andy sat on the bench beside me, affixed the blindfold, and grabbed the axe which Dave – in turn – positioned above the rope, touching it to the rope as Andy had done for him. “OK, there’s the rope,” he said, “you got it?” “Yup,” replied Andy, “better stand back”, Dave complied as Andy now raised the axe over his head and then he too brought it down with a mighty CHOP!…this time missing the rope altogether but leaving a nice axe head shaped scar in the plywood floor. Peeking under his blindfold Andy moaned “Aww, shit…I missed it…give me another try.” Blindfold repositioned, axe in hand, Dave set him up again and Andy swung his axe with even greater force, and CHOP! Once again missed his mark.
Of course, as I sat watching this spectacle, with the whisky working its magic, I thought, “That doesn’t look too difficult, how the heck did he miss? I bet I could do better than Andy.” “Ha Ha!”, laughed Dave, “you didn’t even touch the rope…hey George, do you wanna try?” “Sure,” I said, “set me up.” “OK, you’ll need to take off your hardhat to get a good swing on the axe.” I took off my hardhat and set it on the bench, put on the blindfold, grabbed the axe from Andy, and let Dave guide my axe to the rope. “
“OK…you feel where the rope is?”, asked Dave. “Yeah, I got this,” I replied. “Ok, just let me get outta the way before you take your swing.” I touched my axe to the rope one more time to get my bearing then slowly lifted the axe above my head – I was going to show these clowns and nail this silly game. After I got the axe to a sufficient height, with my arms extended to the correct length and fulcrum to cut that sucker clean in half, I swung with all my might, and CRUNCH! Came the sound of a large red Fire Axe chopping deeply into my work hardhat.
Even before I managed to get my blindfold off and survey the damage to my hardhat, I could hear the hysterical laughter of Andy & Dave. “Hahahahah! Nice one man!” laughed Dave, “Clean through the top, chop chop.” I peeked under the blindfold at my aluminum hardhat, pierced and impaled on the axe. How the hell did I not see this one coming? I thought…oh yeah, I was blindfolded in a room with two mischief monkeys drinking whiskey. Andy had quickly removed the rope and repositioned my hat while I was concentrating on my swing.
Hazing Ritual #2 successful…check.
“Jesus,” I said as I checked out the damage and slowly wiggled the hardhat free from the grip of the axe, sticking a baby finger through the hole. “How many more of these fun games do you guys have?” “Ha ha!” laughed Andy, “you should’ve seen your face when the axe went into your hat C-R-U-N-C-H,” he embellished. Just then, Tool Push Brandon opened the door, stuck his head in, and said, “OK morons, coffee break’s over, c’mon, let’s get back to work.” Immediately subdued, Andy & Dave replied, “Sure thing Boss,” in unison, and I just nodded, sticking my wounded hat onto my head.
After prank number two, my radar was up and I was fairly confident that “the boys” wouldn’t be able to pull another fast one on me. We just carried on with our grinding jobs as I incrementally developed lift and carry muscles, and spotted the best position to be in for the pipe changes to avoid getting covered in mud. I’m a fairly quick learner, but I was already recognizing the drawbacks of working on the rigs. “Sure the money’s good,” I thought, “but only because you have to work 12 and 16 hour days to get overtime, doing this crappy job, eating their shitty food …with guys you don’t really like…while hearing stories about other guys getting injured on other rigs.” We’d just heard rumours of a nearby rig getting hit by lightning, injuring a couple of workers. “Great,” I thought, “getting injured seems to be a real crap shoot, it’s like a Bad Luck Lottery.”
Day 4 broke overcast and warm. It was September in Northern Alberta and mosquitos were slowly being replaced by clouds of blackflies and stinging wasps. Breakfast, at least, was substantial, typical and hearty – as it was in most camps. Bacon or Ham and Eggs, toast, hash browns, Orange Juice and a bottomless cup of coffee. I’d developed a coffee habit from my days hitchhiking across Canada at age 17, and staying at Youth Hostels where a pot of free coffee was always percolating – so this limitless access gave a heavily caffeinated start to my days.
Already the repetitive nature of the job was sinking in and I was getting the hang of what was expected of me. I met my “buddies” Andy & Dave on the platform and we proceeded with our duties with an occasional word or instruction from Brandon, or Bob the Rig Manager. We were so low on the totem pole that anyone else on the rig could ask us to do something – even the Derrickhand or Motorman – and we’d have to comply. Thus far, most of the bossing had been reserved for the Driller Brandon, a no-nonsense kind of guy who seemed largely devoid of humour, compassion, kindness, or interest in others – which really means he didn’t seem interested in me, as I had no real idea how he got along with his own peers or superiors.
It was late morning and I found myself returning to the mud bag pile from the vat when Brandon appeared from somewhere within the machinery of the rig, and – in order to make himself heard -shouted, “Hey, George!” (it was the first time he’d called me by my first name…up to this point it had been “Bathgate” or “New Guy”) “I needja to do something…put whatever you’re doing on hold and follow me.” Obediently I trailed behind him along a narrow corridor into the belly of the machine which powered the entire rig. I was no longer in tedious/repetitive territory – it was hot, deafening and unfamiliar…and somewhere I’d not yet been, seen, nor dreamed of. We came to a three rung metal ladder leading up to a narrow aperture onto a 2-foot wide, 10-foot long platform, claustrophobically encased by what appeared to be the very heart of the machine – an endlessly roaring beast, giving power and drive to the primary function – drill baby drill.
Brandon grabbed my arm, stood me in front of the small metal ladder, pointed into the opening of the gates of hell and shouted, “Do you see that handle!?” He was pointing to a small handle which appeared to be the only visible, movable thing on the far wall of the roaring dark nook – about a 10 or 12 foot crouch walk up the ladder and along the narrow platform. “Yes!” I shouted back. “I want you to go in there and turn that handle to the left.” Well, that seems pretty straightforward, I thought, and, without further adieu, I reached up, and curled my gloved fingers around the metal housing surrounding the aperture in order to pull myself up. My left hand was immediately stung by an incredibly fast and forceful ZING! Running across all my fingers, startling me, and causing me to immediately pull my hand back and hold it protectively to my chest. I didn’t know if I was in pain or shock. “Take off your glove!” Brandon shouted. I looked up slightly bewildered. “Your glove..TAKE IT OFF!” he shouted again with emphasis. I took the glove off, to show him that none of my fingers had been cut off inside the glove. “OK…you’re fine…put your glove back on …pull yourself up with those rungs” He pointed at two hand rungs positioned especially for that purpose. Gingerly, carefully, I crawled into the cavity, reached the handle, turned it to the left and crawled back out.
When we exited the machine to the open air of the platform, where the deafening noise abated – somewhat – Brandon said, “You stuck your hand into the housing for the 10-foot fans that cool off the machine…be more careful…I’ve seen guys lose fingers.” Then he turned and headed back to whatever he was doing before our encounter.
There was a definite groove on my leather work gloves where the fan had whizzed across my fingers. I stood for a few moments reflecting on the significance of what had just happened before returning to work. Sweet, I thought, with a soupçon of sangfroid, I could’ve just lost my fingers…how much are these fingers worth? Big Money? Or are they priceless? “Hey man!” shouted Andy, as he came up from the mud bag palettes, “there you are…we’d wondered where you’d gone…c’mon it’s time to change some pipe.” My dark reverie interrupted, I turned and followed Andy up the catwalk to the drilling platform.
I was feeling a little off my game, realizing that my cocky “How hard could it be” approach to the job of Roughneck really didn’t factor in risk of serious injury. I elected to forego the 16-hour shift, in favour of the shorter 12-hour day so I could get off at 8, mull over my situation…and spend a few quality hours at night with the other louts swigging whisky from a 26’er while ogling the Penthouse centrefolds Mike had taped up on the walls around his bunk. Foremost on my mind was picking their more seasoned brains on the topic of “work related injuries” – who better to ask?
It didn’t take long to loosen up their tongues, they all had stories to tell and were willing – let’s say eager – to share increasingly gruesome incidents, both personal and anecdotal. When I mentioned my brush with near digit removal, Mike laughed and held up his hand which was missing half a baby finger. “I lost this the same way as you on the first rig I worked on…fuckin’ driller could’ve warned me,” he said. Then Andy piped up, “I broke my ankle slipping on the catwalk while carrying a bag of mud…gave me a nice little 6-week EI holiday.” “Yeah, I cracked 3 ribs on my left side when one of the clamps bucked back during a pipe change…God it was painful to breathe,” said Dave, “I was off for about a month with that one.” I’ve seen guys getting whipped when the chains break while they’re throwin’ the chains.”, said Mike, “Or having a foot crushed by a length of pipe if it slips,” he continued. “Moving the rig is pretty dangerous too…once ya hit oil ya gotta cap it off and take the whole rig apart and move it somewhere else…and then set it up – that’s pretty shitty work.”
Jesus, I thought, it’s not “if”, it’s “when” I get injured…and Mike’s observation that the Driller could’ve warned him and saved his finger stuck with me. Brandon could’ve done the same thing with me but was either testing me… or, just playing with me. I felt a bit disposable – working with guys and a boss who either didn’t care or actively disliked me. And the idea of disassembling this entire operation, packing it up and moving it just seemed too unappealing to contemplate. There were whole layers of this job that just sucked…except for the “Big Money”… which, I now envisioned, enjoying in my new motorized wheelchair with my prosthetic arm and eye patch.
“Guys, I gotta hit the sack,” I said, as I got up to leave for my trailer, “oh, and thanks for the shots of CC…I owe you.”
I rose the next morning, invigorated, despite my semi-sleepless night of rumination. A little bacon & eggs & coffee seemed like the best plan as I knew it was going to be a long day. My mischievous mates joined me and we ate and joked as the morning sun poured through the small windows of the Kitchen Trailer. We finished, got up and returned our trays to the stainless-steel counter before heading out the door to begin our shifts. As the boys headed for the platform, I said, “I’ll catch up with you guys later…just gotta see Brandon first,” as I veered towards his office. I knocked, and Brandon said, “Come in.” I poked my head in the door…he didn’t seem too surprised to see me, “What’s up?”, he said. I entered the Office Trailer where he and the Rig Manager both had desks, and sat in the chair nearest to him, looked him in the eyes and said, “I quit.” He held my gaze for a moment, expressionless, and said, “OK…get your gear from your bunk, and meet me at the truck.”
I didn’t bother to say any other goodbyes…what was the point? I’d made a decision, and the clarity of purpose and certainty felt good – I’d decided to terminate my 4-day career as a roughneck and head back to the coast. I stuffed everything into my backpack and headed for the parking lot. Brandon was already there with the truck running, so I threw my pack in the back and hopped into the cab beside him. We were both silent for the short 5 or 10 minute drive to where I’d left my car – luckily several dry days allowed the truck to make the trip without the assistance of a caterpillar. As we stopped in the cleared staging/parking area, Brandon turned to me before I got out of the truck and said, sarcastically, “I could tell you wasn’t a Roughneck.” I turned to look at him for a moment, “It’s weren’t,” I said, and got out of the truck, glad to see that my volkswagen hadn’t been vandalized in this remote area and feeling as free as a bird.
*Epilogue about Bill….these were the days without internet, Cell phones, & social media. When we said goodbye, our lives really did take separate turns, and we had little, or no way of remaining in touch. We didn’t know each other’s families, we had no addresses or phone numbers beyond the two we exchanged in Edmonton, and, like many young men, became so busy and engaged with our lives that reconnecting was not necessary nor a priority. I heard from a mutual friend when I returned to Vancouver, that Bill had found a job on a rig and – unlike myself – had stuck with it and may have chosen to continue working in “the patch”. I heard he made “Big Money”😊