July 1960 –
Some things stick in your mind because they were painful, and this is one of them.
I’ve been on several of Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company’s offshore rigs over the past two months, and I am settling into the job. This week our roustabout crew will be working on the Mr. Charlie offshore rig. (The Mr. Charlie was named for Charlie Murphy) The first part of the week has been fairly routine, but this morning our crew is below deck waiting for the foreman to come line us out for the day. I know something special is on tap.
I have been up since 5 a.m. and, as usual, I loaded up on a big T-bone for breakfast. A couple of eggs won’t stay with you till noon.
It’s 6 o’clock, and the rig tool-pusher—-not our foremen—-is coming down the ladder to where we’re standing. In a few minutes, we’ll start our shift, which will continue until 6:30 p.m. this evening with only a 30 minute break for lunch. The tool-pusher interrupts my thoughts.
“Boys y’all are gonna know your ass has worked today,” he drawls, as he walks up to where our roustabout crew is waiting.
“Go down below and the crew foreman will be there to get you acquainted with cuttin’ sacks.”
Cutting sacks, I think can’t be that hard.
When we get below our roustabout foreman tells us the roughneck crew on the rig floor is running production casing into the drilled hole, and when the casing reaches bottom, cement will be pumped in to cement the pipe in the hole. Our roustabout crew’s job is very simple; all we have to do is move the 100 pound sacks of cement over to a hopper, where two of our crew will stand, one on either side of a vertical knife that sticks up about four-inches. The knife is in the center of a flat metal table, and as you pull the sack of cement across it, the knife cuts the sack, and you and whoever is across the table from you, dumps the sack in the hopper. It is a pretty simple job.
“Okay, boys, pipe will be on bottom in about 30 minutes, and we sure as hell don’t want to wait on cement.”
Butch Rushing and I, along with two Cajun roustabouts, will start with the job of hauling the sacks to the conveyor belt that moves them to where the other four roustabouts can grab them and pull them across the knife.
“Y’all change places every 30 minutes. You hear? And you get a 10 minute break every hour,” our foreman yells to us.
We nod and our team starts grabbing 100 pound sacks and throwing them on the belt that leads to the hopper. Well, a few sacks are easy, as I find out, but 2700 sacks, the amount needed to cement the pipe in the hole, are not, and I am more than ready to cut sacks after 30 minutes of throwing 100 pound sacks of cement on the belt to the hopper.
“Think you college boys can keep up?” says Shorty, a tough little Cajun, one of the permanent rig roustabouts. Yeah, we’ve been getting a lot of “soft college boys” mouthing from the regular Cajun roustabouts.
“Damn right we can,” spits Butch.
Hell yes, I think we can handle the job. I’ve been working 12-hour days, with only a few days break for nearly six weeks, and I know I’m in good shape. However, as we switch jobs after 30 minutes, I find out something very quickly. The cutting job focuses all the work on your arms and shoulders and the movement is continuous. One or even 10 sacks or 50 sacks is fairly easy, but we are cutting 2700 hundred, one hundred pound sacks as fast as we can pull them across the blade, and the tool-pusher is standing there yelling at us if we slow down.
“By God, if I hear that hopper suck air, I’m gonna kick some ass!” the pusher yells, if we slow down even for a few seconds. It has been about 25 minutes now and my arms are aching to the point where I can hardly grasp the ends of the bag of cement. When the knife cuts the sack of cement, cement dust puffs up and clogs my nostrils.
Trying to stay at the cutter for more than 30 minutes is impossible. I’m praying for the 10-minute rest when we change jobs. It is really quiet now, and the only sound is the grind of the hopper and the gasping for air by our crew. Butch is across from me and his face is beet red and his mouth is open, gulping air.
“Break!” yells the foreman.”
I stagger back and stumble toward the open door to the rig rail. The 10 minutes passed so fast I can’t believe it, and now I am back in the line, lifting the 100 pound sacks of cements and throwing them on the conveyor belt.
Naturally, since four of us are college summer workers, and the other four are seasoned Louisiana roustabouts, we have been kidded for the last few weeks about being soft, college kids. Now we are going to show them we can stand in there and do as much as they can, or we are going to die trying.
At times I think I might actually do the die trying bit. The four of us are not as tough or seasoned as the four permanent roustabout crew members, but we don’t smoke, and they do.
We have just cut number 2000 of the 2700 sacks, and the four Cajun roustabouts are asking for relief with 10 minutes to go. We are whipping their Louisiana asses.
Butch and I are taking our 10 minute break with about 200 sacks left, and I walk out of the dusty hole of the rig and over to the rail to cough up cement tainted phlegm and drink as much water as I can get down in 10 minutes. While I rest, I look up and there sitting on the edge of the rig fishing and drinking beer is a guy in clean, starched jeans and a white t-shirt. I don’t recognize him.
“Butch, who’s the tourist up there fishing and drinking beer?”
“Oh that guy? I asked the foreman, and he said it was the company geologist. Said he is through evaluating the set of logs that were run to access the oil and gas potential, and he is waiting on a helicopter to come pick him up.”
I stand covered in cement dust, my arms aching, and sweat dripping off my nose, and I think, I’ve got a BS in geology and a semester toward my MS, and here I am killing myself while he’s fishing and drinking beer….oh my God!
“Time, boys! Richard, you get on the knife and Butch help Shorty with lifting sacks!” our foreman yells. As I pull the 100 pound sacks across the knife all I can think about is the company geologist fishing and drinking beer….and I’ve still have 10 minutes left on the knife.
Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.