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Chapter 3: Aug. 28, 1965, on a drilling rig in the Western Sahara Desert

The rig crew worked most of the night pulling the drill pipe out of the hole, installing the test tool, and then going back in the hole to set the packer. The packer isolates the zone we are testing. It's about 5:30 a.m., and the rig crew, Esso engineer Bill Sandier, and I are standing on the rig floor waiting for daylight.

Because of high test pressures, sometimes in excess of 5,000 pounds, there is always a possibility of a flow line pipe breaking and natural gas or oil spewing out on the rig floor. All testing is done during daylight hours for the aforementioned safety concerns. The engineer gets to make the call, and I'm watching the horizon where the sun will rise above the big red sand dunes that surround the rig.

It's a little after 6 a.m. when the sun peeks over the biggest dune. Bill nods and gives a whirl over his head to the driller who is waiting for the signal. The drill pipe starts to rotate. At 8,510 feet below the surface, the drill stem test tool opens to let in whatever is in the formation flow into the drill string. Sometimes it's saltwater, other times it's oil or gas, and sometimes it's nothing.

I'm holding a little rubber hose connected to the drill string, which will confirm the tool is open by blowing air out into a bucket of water. If something flows into the drill pipe it will force air out at the surface. Sometimes there are just a few bubbles, and that's always bad news. The sandstone doesn't have any permeability, and nothing is flowing into the drill string, so it's almost certain to be a dry hole. However, as the driller nods, there is an immediate strong blow, which nearly blasts all the water out of the bucket.

"Turn it to the pit!" I yell. Before we started the test a 60-foot section of pipe was run out to a mud pit. Under the end of the pipe we put a bucket of oil-soaked rags, which we lit before the tool opened.

"Gas to the surface!" Bill yells. A 20-foot flare of gas shoots out the end of the pipe and there is an immediate "woof"' as the natural gas ignites, burning blue-white flare with an occasional burst of orange flame.

"I think we're going to get some oil," I yell to Bill. "That orange in the flare is crude oil!"

But I'm wrong, because an hour later the pressure is 3,078 pounds, and the flare is 50 feet out the flow pipe. The burst of orange flare is gone.

"Looks like it's mostly dry gas," says Bill.

"Yeah, and gas is worthless 375 miles from Tripoli."

Another week is behind me now. I'm itching to leave this job, but won't be leaving today. The assistant geologist notified me during morning report that I will be held over another week. When I fly out, I will have been in the desert for 23 days without a break. Not only is it midsummer, but I am in the red sand Western Sahara Desert, and I think we're about to set a new world temperature record.

I have been suspicious of the old R.C. Cola thermometer that is hanging in the shade by the trailer office. Every time I've checked it the reading has been 120 degrees, which is the maximum it can read. This morning before daylight, I'm going to see if it still says 120. Then I'll know it's wrong. It doesn't cool off as much in this part of the desert as it does in central Libya where the sand dunes are almost white and reflect the sun, but I know it's not 120 degrees at 5 in the morning.

Turns out it's just under 82 degrees. I guess I've been dealing with temperatures during the day somewhat north of 120 degrees.

I'm leaving at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow, but before I fly out I am going to drive about three miles from camp to a wadi (small canyon) where thousands of clear gypsum fossils have weathered out of sandstone and shale formations. These fossils of clear gypsum, which would normally deteriorate in a moist climate, are lying on the ground just waiting to be picked up.

Back several million years ago this region of North Africa was a part of the Atlantic Ocean. I had spotted the fossils when I drove by last week because the gypsum glistens in the sun. Looking out the Land Rover's window, I was amazed at the sea shells, coral, and other creatures that had been buried on the ocean floor where their skeletons were replaced by gypsum, and now millions of years later they have weathered out of the dry stream bed. I'm going to collect dozens, but I wish I could collect hundreds of pounds, but can't because of the weight. I just hope Alitalia doesn't have any weight restrictions.

Finally, I'm on the old DC-3 again heading back to Benghazi via Tripoli. The DC-3 lands at the Tripoli airport with plenty of time left for me to make the late Alitalia flight to Benghazi. I buy an International Herald Tribune to try and catch up on the world news. Heck, we could be in World War III for all I know. The only communication available from any of the drilling rigs are short-wave radios that only connect to the Benghazi Esso Libya Office. When President Kennedy was assassinated I found out about it when I gave my morning report.

Alitalia is late again, but what's new? They should just move the departure forward an hour, although they would probably still be late. Now I'm finally on the plane back to Benghazi.

An Alitalia flight attendant puts a pillow behind my head and hands me a glass of good Italian red wine. Gosh, it feels so good to lean back and sip that glass. I have turned the air conditioning vents to blow cold air down on my sun-scorched head.

We've just landed and pulled up in front of the old Quonset hut that is being used as a terminal, and I'm smiling thinking about a surprise I have for Vertis. I haven't shaved for over three weeks and have a rather full black beard. For some reason I put a cowboy hat and boots in my duffle bag, so I'm walking across the landing strip wearing them and dirty blue jeans.

I'm close now, and she is really giving me the eye. Her first words are, "Richard?--Shave it off, or ...!" I'm nodding "yes" before she finishes the sentence.

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

Editorial on 06/24/2018

Print Headline: In the desert the heat goes on

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