Some things stick in your mind because they were painful. This is one of them.
It's July 1960. I'd been on several of Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company's offshore rigs over the past two months and am settling into the job. This week our roustabout crew will be working on the Mr. Charlie offshore rig. 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, loaded up on a big T-bone for breakfast. A couple of eggs won't stay with you till noon.
By 6 a.m., the rig tool-pusher--not our foreman--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. with a 30-minute break for lunch. The tool-pusher interrupts my thoughts.
"Boys, y'all are gonna know your a** has worked today," he drawls as he walks up to where our crew is waiting. "Go down below and the crew foreman will be there to get you acquainted with cuttin' sacks."
Cutting sacks? 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 secure the pipe in the hole. Our roustabout crew's job is 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 one of us pulls the sack of cement across it, the knife cuts the sack, the other, across the table, dumps the sack in the hopper.
"OK, 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. A few sacks are easy, as I find out, but 2,700 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.
"Think you college boys can keep up?" says Shorty, a tough little Cajun who's one of the permanent rig roustabouts. Yeah, we've been getting a lot of "soft college boys" mouthing.
"Damn right we can," spits Butch.
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 very quickly that the cutting job focuses all the work on your arms and shoulders, and the movement is continuous. 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 a**!" he 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; his face is beet red and his mouth is open, gulping air.
"Break!" yells the foreman.
I stagger back and stumble toward the door to the rig rail. The 10 minutes pass so fast I can't believe it, and now I am back in the line, lifting 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 roustabouts, we are going to show them we can do as much as they can, or we are going to die trying. We are not as tough or seasoned, but we don't smoke, and the permanent roustabouts do.
We have just cut No. 2,000 of the 2,700 sacks, and the four Cajuns are asking for relief with 10 minutes to go.
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 bachelor of science degree in geology and a semester toward my master's degree, and here I am killing myself while he's fishing and drinking beer.
"Time, boys! Richard, you get on the knife, and Butch, help Shorty with lifting sacks!" our foreman yells. As I pull the sacks across the knife all I can think about is the company geologist fishing and drinking beer ... and I still have 10 minutes on the knife.
Email Richard Mason at email@example.com.
Editorial on 04/14/2019
Print Headline: RICHARD MASON: Memories of a summer job