RAISING THE DERRICK
Like most people who rely on oil for nearly every aspect of their existence, I didn't know anything about a drilling rig. I pulled off my hard hat, wiped my forehead with my forearm, and looked across the work location, trying to take it all in. On a mud-colored scar in the land cut flat two hundred yards across, trucks coughed diesel, cranes farted smoke, and dust turned to mud on the faces of men toiling under bright sunlight. The rig was half in pieces—giant square chunks of steel, littered across the dirt. I had no idea how it went back together. I adjusted the inside strap of my hard hat—what had the roughneck called it? A "brain bucket?"—and set it back on my head. It was my fifth day in the oil patch. I had yet to make a hand; I didn't even know what it meant to "make a hand," and I had no idea how vital that idea would become to me. I was a greenhorn, what most oil patch guys call a "worm," a headless, legless, brainless thing, good for eating dirt and shutting the fuck up.
I had just left the shit box. The plumbing wasn't functional yet, so the bathroom consisted of a trailer with a bare lightbulb, a toilet, and a mess of flies. It was 99 degrees outside the trailer and probably 120 degrees inside the shit box. Standing twenty feet away from it, I could smell the stink carried on the breeze.
In five days of work, I'd clocked over seventy hours of heavy manual labor. My neck and shoulders were stiff, my arms, legs, knees, and ankles battered and sore. My hands ached, and my head felt foggy from lack of sleep. Over the past several weeks, I had been crashing on a filthy flophouse floor, in a room I shared with several other migrant workers. The stress of the oil field work, combined with the stress of this living situation, aggravated a twitch under my left eye. It felt like my face was shorting out. That morning, I'd made the mistake of thinking about giving up. The thought had wormed its way into my brain, and now I couldn't seem to shake it. I was bone-tired, afraid, and nauseous.
There were many ways to get hurt on location. Or die. Exhausted men operated heavy machinery, trucks thundered past, heavy objects flew through the air—steel swinging steel around on cables, hooks, and slings. You could go blind. You could lose your hearing. You could lose a limb. A rod could snap, and bam: instant lobotomy. One hundred thirty-eight oil field hands had been killed in the United States the previous year. I looked around. I could see it happening to me. My breathing sped up, and my stomach knotted. I tried to take slow steady breaths.
Dragonflies buzzed around. I walked through a row of pickup trucks, across the dirt patch and toward a pile of wind walls—thin metal sheets some fifteen feet across. A wind wall does exactly what it sounds like it should do. On the high plains, with no trees or mountains to stop it, the wind is fierce. Even in the summer, gusts of northern air can all but knock you down. The walls protect against that. They make it easier for men to work the floor of the drilling rig, two to three stories above the dirt.
I was twenty yards from the crane and maybe thirty yards from the base of the rig. I squinted up into the sun. A wind wall, attached to the crane by four metal chains on the crane's whip line, dangled in the air above the rig's floor. A crew of roughnecks, strapped into harnesses and wearing heavy work boots, guided the wall down, set it carefully in place, and, after lumbering along the edge of the floor, swung their sledgehammers at large metal pins to attach it to the rig.
When the wall was connected, the crane operator reeled in the whip line. It swung in an arc above the men, away from them and toward me. With the precision of a bullet hitting a bull's-eye, the chains came to a sharp stop directly in front of me, the hooks suspended at the level of my chest. I gathered them into my hands, sliding the fasteners into eye hooks welded onto the corners of the next wall, then I looked back to the operator. He sat in the cab, blue Oakley sunglasses and beard slapped across an inscrutable expression. I waved a hand, and he gave me a nod. I stepped away from the pile, and another wind wall flew up into the blue.
* * *
At lunchtime, I sat in the back of the work van and ate cold Chunky soup out of the can. Bobby Lee sat with the driver's seat kicked way back, his boots up on the dash. He wore a Resistol brand Diamond Horseshoe cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes. At one point the hat had been the color of pearl, but it was beat to shit, dirty, greasy, and floppy—incongruent with his studied look. "Now you know why gas is so expensive," Bobby Lee said.
I stared out the window of the van. The work site was cluttered with tractor trailers, pickup trucks, forklifts, a hydraulic crane, a lattice boom crane, rows of stacked piping, giant metal structures, and crews of men.