Politics & Policy

The Education of a Roughneck

(Tetra Images/Getty)

‘Hey, Dirt, so . . . why do they call you Dirt?”

“Well . . . when I was working offshore I used to get real dirty so they called me Dirt.”

And so it goes. Because, why else would someone pick up a nickname like that?

If there is such a thing as perfection in life, nicknames in the oil field come pretty close. Dirt. Baby Pig. Lil Red. Smooth. Babe. Sweetie. J-Dubba-Bubba. Maybe it’s just that going after all that Texas Tea attracts some eccentric personalities.

* * *

I went to work in the oilfield after I had hit rock bottom. I was 24 and drifting, loaded up with unpayable student loans and at a loss for what to do. The 14 months I spent roughnecking on a drilling rig in the deserts north and west of Midland, Texas, were the most formative in my life — more than any period living the high life while in college.

I learned. Yes, I learned about the internal workings of high-pressure pumps and the complicated process of putting together the bottom-hole assembly, but more than anything I learned about life — about how to wake up at 5 a.m. and go to work when it’s freezing cold and raining sideways. I learned about work ethic and toughing things out when you’d rather quit and go home. Maybe some people learned that in college. I didn’t.

A roughneck in the patch typically works 14 straight 12-hour workdays. Well, I should say a minimum of 12-hour days: When it’s time to move the rig, 18-hour days are the norm. Half a month is a long time to slog it out far from home in that wasteland known as West Texas. And out there, it never feels like the 14-day hitch is close to coming to an end. Even two days out from finishing up, a roughneck is still on the hook for 24 more hours of labor — or over half of a normal five-day work week.

* * *

A roughneck lives by his nose and his stomach. He can tell time by how hungry he is. Well, no, scratch that. A roughneck is always hungry. But his nose tells him when it’s time to shower, whether that black runny stuff is oil-based mud or just swampy earth, that it’s time to find out where that burning rubber stench is coming from, and if there’s a serious danger of poisonous gas in the air.

A roughneck is always wet. There is simply no avoiding that. It can be 110 degrees in August or 2 below at 4 a.m. in January: You’re gonna get wet.

The wetness rains down on you from the sky and from the derrick tower. It comes bubbling up from the ground and over the tops of your boots. It blows sideways at you when the oil or water comes shooting out of the stump. The wetness clings to you whenever you grab a four-inch hose to throw over your shoulder or when you stand downwind of the pressure washer. And then — damn it all — there are the times you climb down into the wetness. Into the cellar or the pits. Into three or four or five feet of oozing, slimy, oily, wetness.

Expect your supposedly “waterproof” leather boots to lose their waterproofiness pretty quickly. Get used to that wonderful squishy feeling between your toes.

A roughneck needs a steady supply of new socks. He wishes he could buy a new pair of feet.

* * *

Over the course of an “average” day, a roughneck may swing a sledgehammer 150 times. He may make casing connections for twelve straight hours. He may ride the contraption affectionately known as the “ass wagon” up the derrick leg, zip-tying a cable in 60-mph winds. He may use a weed burner to thaw out hoses and valves. He may climb down into one of the two huge, SUV-sized mud pumps to change out a blown pump swab or a liner. He could pressure-wash and detail the stack only to see it completely covered in sludge 15 minutes later. He could be sent to clean the rig manager’s — the “tool pusher’s”— kitchen.

The roughneck’s iconic tools are the sledgehammer and the pipe wrench. But we’re not talking just ten-pound hammers and 24-inch wrenches. Remember when that giant of a man, the late Michael Clarke Duncan, walked around with a 60-inch pipe wrench in Armageddon like it didn’t weigh a thing? Those guys actually get used. And dammit all if they aren’t a son of bitch to lug around.

Maybe I should mention that the proverbial sailor could feel out-salted by the language of the oil patch. Gushes of F-bombs and “sumbitches” can rise to the level of High Art. “First they’ll cuss you, then they’ll cuss you again, then they’ll tell you to fix it or pack your bags, and then they’ll cuss you again,” an old hand warned me on my very first day. If you can’t take being cussed, I’m gonna go ahead and recommend that you choose another career path.

* * *

Roughnecks, tappers of the tar, are as superstitious as baseball players. You better spit on the new bit. Never clean your hard hat while on tour. No chicken bones or cherry pies in the dog house. Never hang the elevators upside down.

A drilling rig is a magical place full of all kinds of wonderful things that a “worm” — a newb — could never hope to identify: the possum bellies, the stack, the pumpkins, the jumping-jacks, and the cumi skid. You’ve got ST-80s and BOPs and IBOPs and TIW valves. Which makes it fairly easy to play jokes on the new guys: “Go tell the tool pusher we need a bucket of ‘AIR’ to fix this pump!” – a bucket of A-I-R, of course, being only a bucket of “air:” The gas we all breathe.

To keep things simple — or not — anything and everything in the oil field can be referred to as a “deal” by potbellied old-timers. As in: “Hey, boy, run over there by that deal and grab that deal that’s on top of the deal so we can fix this deal! And do it real quick like!”

Roughnecks, tappers of the tar, are as superstitious as baseball players. You better spit on the new bit. Never clean your hard hat while on tour. No chicken bones or cherry pies in the dog house. Never hang the elevators upside down. Bad luck can haunt a rig. If you’re the one tempting the Heavens with your actions, then you’re gonna get cussed, run off, or worse before you end up being the cause of the rig burning down.

But then there are the sunrises and the sunsets. And the fresh sharp smell of morning in the air and the warm glow as the sun sinks low over the horizon at dusk. You’ll get a good helping of oranges and purples and yellows and jaw-dropping blues.

Working out of doors and getting paid damn good money to watch the skies dance is a double-edged sword. The bad times are bad but the good times . . . well, the good times are pretty good.

Life on a rig teaches you things that you can take with you for the rest of your days. Like working hard so that your exhausted buddy doesn’t have to cover your slack. That it’s a terrible idea to ever take off your hard hat. And how to tie a half-hitch. And that a “hammer wrench” is a wrench that you hit with a hammer. And how to take a nap standing up. And that diesel will clean anything. And that, in America, you’re never too good for any job.

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