"You-a see that? Be-a careful near it, it-a can kill you."
These were the first words of advice my Bosun, Sal Piscneri, gave me on my orientation tour of the drill ship I would be working on for the summer. Amidst all of the pipes and, machinery, and endless noise, I wasn't quite sure what he was nodding toward, but I didn't have time to clear things up because he was already moving on to the next death trap.
"That-a thing over there? It-a can kill you. Keep-a your eyes up."
His heavy Italian accent added to the unfamiliarity of my new workplace and the short, terse sentences he employed left me wondering if perhaps something was being lost in translation. Like, how, exactly, I would meet my demise if I was ever caught on deck and unaware.
"You see that-a rope ova there?"
"Can it kill me?"
"Absolutley. Don't-a get-a caught between it and the railing. It'll cut-a you in half."
Finally some detail, although now I wasn't sure if I had really wanted it. Our tour continued in this macabre manner moving aft down the entire port side of the ship and then back forward up the starboard side, a journey that even at a brisk pace with no stops would easily have taken fifteen minutes. Everything could kill me and there were certain areas I was absolutely forbidden to go unless I was accompanied by a senior crew member, my very presence alone in those areas enough to result in sudden, gruesome death.
It was the summer after my first year in grad school and as all of my classmates were spending their time doing research in libraries and foreign countries, I was floating in 9,000 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico trying not to get killed. My father has made a career of negotiating the perils of various drilling installations and the previous summer had offered to try and get me hired on as a summer hand but retracted his offer when another summer worker was, you guessed it, killed. A year later his faith in the safety of the profession had been reestablished - or at least he thought I was no longer dumb enough to get myself killed - and after a few phone calls to old buddies, I was on my way to Houston to complete paperwork and pass a pre-employment physical.
The paperwork hinted at the possible dangers of the job, but in a much more officious way than Sal would once I got on the ship. The physical was comprised of the usual hurdles - a drug test, a blood test, and a health screening - but it also required that I spend a day in a Houston office park lifting all manner of bulky equipment while climbing up and down stairs and crawling up and over and through various obstacles while my heart rate was monitored and I tried to look unstrained by the heat and the weight. There was even mechanism that tested my back strength and required me to strap into a contraption that most closely resembled the crazy forklift suit Ripley from Aliens uses to fight the queen alien at the end of the movie. I managed to look not nearly as tough. After all of this, I had no idea what I was getting myself into until I met Sal and we embarked on our journey around the ship.
The Discoverer Spirit was huge and floated over an hour by helicopter off the coast of Louisiana. Looking down at the water at the beginning of the flight, I could see hundreds of drilling platforms, pipelines, and gas wells. The depth of the water was clearly visible as one shelf dropped onto another and the gulf changed from a sandy brown to a chocolate brown to an earthy green and finally a deep and radiant blue. Gradually, there was nothing but water in every direction, the depth and the distance too large an obstacle for all but the most advanced operations. The helicopter droned on over the shimmering expanse until I could finally make out a ship looming in the distance. As we neared, the ship grew larger and larger until our helicopter lit upon it like a fly on a horse's back, it's full scale dwarfed only by the flat desert of the gulf.
I followed the other crew members out of the helicopter, grabbed my duffle bag off the deck from beneath the whirring blades above my head, and hustled my way into the heliport's waiting room where I would be logged in and given instruction on what the hell I was supposed to do next. Oil field workers are an interesting bunch...to put it mildly. They come from all over. Some are educated. Some are not. Some have families. Some don't. Most have nicknames and all can curse more creatively than anyone you'll ever meet.
I expected a lively bunch, as I had grown up hearing about guys with names like Bigfoot and Bama. I'd heard stories of macho smartasses eating roaches in the galley of the rig to get a laugh and piss and vinegar Scotsman climbing towering derricks in gale force winds singing "I'm From Glasgow" as if it were a summer day. There were other stories about sharks, practical jokes, fights, and storms.
One of my favorite stories came from a work buddy of my dad's, a burly ass-kicker of a man named David Arp. David lives in Colorado and once walked up to a buddy of mine who had just moved there, having never met him but intending to invite him to dinner as a mutual friend, and said, "You Ross?"
When my friend answered that he was, David responded, "I know a guy in Texas thinks you're a big pussy."
And that's David Arp.
David's story has as it's main character a guy called The Liar. This story allegedly occurred in Saudi Arabia as a crew of workers was waiting for a helicopter to take them out to a rig located in a particularly remote corner of the country. A helicopter safety video was playing on a TV nearby and The Liar started to tell everyone that he was on the helicopter the day the video was made. Used to his antics, everyone humored him as the helicopter weaved through the desert terrain and a voice-over related the specs and safety information of the helicopter shown. As The Liar was really hitting his stride, the chopper on the video slammed into the side of a cliff and disintegrated into a roaring ball of fire. There was a one beat pause and The Liar said, "Yup. I was the sole survivor."
Having heard these stories, having worked construction jobs before, and having met guys like David Arp, I assumed I would be ready for the characters who were about to enter my life, but I really wasn't. In most jobs, one works with maybe three or four truly interesting people. In this job, everyone had a story. Everyone was a story. After a few nights spent not getting myself killed, I began to relax enough to start actually listening to the conversations happening around me in the break room. Drilling is a 24 hour a day operation. Each hitch I worked was comprised of two weeks on, 14 days of work, 12 hours a day. During each shift, we had two fifteen minute breaks and one thirty minute lunch. The break time is really all the time anyone has to catch up on the two weeks spent not on the rig, and catch up they do. There were stories of benders, strip club fights, and cheating wives. Tool boxes, cars, and livestock were discussed along with an ongoing and incredibly well-reasoned debate about whether the Big XII or the SEC was the better football conference. All of these stories were punctuated by the word "fuck" in all of its forms.
"You know what scares the fuck outta me?"
"Motherfucking spiders, man! Them motherfuckers are fuckin' sneaky little fuckers. I can't motherfuckin' stand the motherfuckin' thought of those motherfuckers climbing all fuckin' over me!"
"Yup. Spiders are fuckin' scary motherfuckers."
"Fuck yeah, they are!"
"One time I was driving my truck down 85 at about harvest time and one of them big motherfuckers - you know the kind I'm talking about? - Those sumbitches with the green on 'em and those big motherfuckin' legs?"
"Fuck yeah, I do! Those motherfuckers are motherfuckin' huge!"
"So I'm driving and notice one of them motherfuckers climbing on my motherfuckin' windshield. I just about fuckin' shit myself!"
"You stop and smash that fucker?"
"Fuck no! I started swerving and swatting at that motherfucker, but I couldn't hit the motherfucker! I ended up pulling the motherfuckin' truck into the motherfuckin' ditch and jumping the fuck out! The bitch of it is I hate motherfuckin' spiders so motherfuckin' much, I didn't even put the motherfuckin' truck in park. Bent up my front end!"
"Holy fuck! What happened to the motherfuckin' spider?"
"Motherfucker was actually on the outside of the motherfuckin' windshield."
I couldn't make this up and I apologize for the profanity, but that's just about as accurate as I can make it. The best part is that the two guys having this conversation were both well over six feet tall and also muscle bound from years of manual labor. Just as they finished their conversation, another massive rough neck of a man sitting across the room chimed in with, "You know what I motherfuckin' hate? Snakes."
After the summer was over, I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying "motherfucker" in polite company. My girlfriend, not qualifying as polite company, wanted to sew my mouth shut.
"Hey Baby, want to cook a motherfuckin' meal tonight or motherfuckin' eat out?"
The work was actually not that difficult. My job title was Ordinary Seaman (yes, that joke's been made) and I was responsible for all of the odds and ends on the ship...plus whatever anyone happened to need me for at the moment I was walking by. There was a lot of painting, inspecting life boats, inspecting fire extinguishers, inspecting fire hoses, helping the welders, tying up supply boats, untying supply boats, and, on one particularly unlucky night, cleaning out the shaker room.