“How big are the bolts – and while we’re at it how many bolts are there? 12? 16?”
“I dunno Dave. I musta left my calibrated eyeball at home.”
I turned toward Lowell Dean; his red-head’s complexion and twenty + years in the New Mexico sun had transformed the regular features of the young man’s face into an unreadable map of creases and freckles but any scowl I may have glimpsed vanished in a flash. He growled on: “Don’t matter much what size they are – they still have to be changed out and I’d just as soon get ‘er done sooner than later!”
As for me, busting my knuckles with a set of wrenches was no sweat but working right underneath an actively roaring fire was…well, sweaty, and as usual it got me to thinking back at how I managed to end up in this situation.
…three months earlier
I had never anticipated the ending of a school year with as much relish as I did the Spring ’73 Semester at Ricks College. While I had performed well academically, my personal life had been a train wreck in slow motion as my engagement crumbled under intense pressure from my parents and family, and as I have written earlier the transition from the lax standards of a state school to an academic environment with strict dress, grooming and conduct expectations had been stressful enough to trigger hives at one point.
What had been just as difficult was the social stratification issuing from that part of the student population who’d grown up in upper- middle-class white-collar families. Overhearing comments like “It’s just the innate nature of some types of people – something they were born with that keeps them at that lower level” was difficult, but when proto-yuppies would twist scripture to justify social Darwinism (“the poor will always be with us”) my ability to suppress a vomit reflex was sorely tested. However, at this point, none of that mattered. I was home in Alaska and ready to lose myself in work for Chevron USA out at Swanson River.
“ I can’t hire you.”
It was one of maybe three times in my life I failed to have a witty rejoinder locked and loaded and I meekly drifted out of the oil-field office to the car and started the long trip home. I drove most of the way in silent shock: every summer since my fifteenth birthday I had worked through a truly amazing list of job titles starting with “janitor” and running through landscaping, grocery clerk, museum attendant, roofer and construction worker before hitting the jackpot by getting hired as a roustabout for Chevron at the Swanson River oil field the previous summer. Getting rehired was not an automatic thing but when I left the previous August there was no indication that I wouldn’t be asked back and I looked forward to at least four more summers slinging a 36-inch adjustable wrench.
The field foremanWayne had been vague about his reasons, and several times touched on federally mandated minority hiring quotas – and as the composition of the Swanson River workforce rivaled that of Ivory Soap1 I found it hard to fault him. Dad was much less forgiving and viewed the action as payback for his role in an unusually acrimonious contract negotiation earlier in the year. Personally I could care less about motivations – I needed money to go back to school so for the next eight weeks I bounced between rototilling gardens, mopping floors, clearing brush and stocking shelves until I was unexpectedly hired by a general labor outfit supplementing regular Chevron efforts out at the field (Translation: doing all the nasty jobs the regular roustabouts balked at doing.) The job drew a much more rough-around-the-edges kind of guy than usual, but I needed the money and showed up bright and early at the field the next morning ready to work with anyone.
I hadn’t been far off with my estimation: my foreman was a middle-aged Norwegian with limited fluency in English who pushed a crew consisting of an alcoholic ex-convict, a silent middle-aged man who never set down the same grimy June 19652 copy of Playboy, myself, and another young man named Lowell Dean. We rumbled around the field in an elderly winch-equipped crew-cab truck held together with wire and rust, while we periodically performing vital maintenance duties such as:
- Collecting all the derelict barrels on the lease into one of three staging areas.
- Digging post holes, then using cement to set welded pipe parking barriers in place.
- Cleaning wellhead drainage sumps, which routinely contained dead animals.
I’d worked with Lowell Dean on a construction job two years earlier: he was from New Mexico and if not a literal cowboy was ‘cowboyish’ with that sunbaked look that comes from spending his life in a sunbaked locale. He was a couple of years older than me and took great delight in taunting me as a ‘college boy’ but we worked well together and were quickly made into a permanent sub-team trusted with more complex tasks …which is how we ended up at the main flare. The Swanson River operation pumps oil by gas-injection so there aren’t any ‘bobbing elephant’ pumps most people associate with oil fields. The oil is situated under an impermeable shale layer and is forced up by propane pumped down through holes drilled into the barrier, a process much like blowing bubbles through a straw in your milkshake. Oil from a dozen wells was then collected to a tank setting where it was measured, filtered, then pumped via another line to a terminal where it was sent on to the refinery at the coast twenty miles away. Each tank setting had a ‘flare system outlet’ flare pipe – a large diameter fifty-foot pipe that would occasionally belch fireballs of propane gas when system pressures had to be regulated.
….but the biggest and potentially most hazardous flare outlet was the main one located not far from the compressor plant that pumped the propane into the ground3. At some point in the past the bolts securing the bottom of the pipe had been changed out for a slightly smaller but very unsuitable size and had to be immediately replaced. The work order had gone to the senior production operator, who had passed it to his junior partner, who gave it in turn to the roustabout crew. Citing a heretofore forgotten trap-valve that suddenly needed replacing at the other end of the field, the Chevron crew drop-kicked the assignment to our company, where it made its way through the ranks, and finally came to a halt with the most junior crew, namely us.
The ball kept on rolling: citing language difficulties, a hangover, and the mysterious loss of that battered issue of Playboy, the other three members of the crew begged off, which is why Lowell Dean and I were slowly creeping up to the flange at bottom of the main flare outlet pipe on that cloudy August afternoon. There was a moderate flame at the top of the pipe – nothing to get worked up about, but the power had been going out several times that morning with a major flare following each power bump, and we were both silently (but frantically) calculating frequency and average duration for flares that day.
Stress and my limited experience would normally bring on a severe case of fumble-fingers, especially when working with anything threaded or opened /closed with a wheel4 but this time around I was using those wrenches like a surgeon wielding a scalpel. It was a Zen moment –one of those comfortable grey days typical of a late Alaskan summer, momentarily freeing me of my eternal squint. The rumble of the compressor plant was surprisingly soothing, and we worked smoothly with no dropped tools, hesitations or wasted motion, completing the task in an unusually short time.
Packing tools, cleaning up, and backing the truck down the access road was anticlimactic until the moment we got back to the main road and a siren blared, announcing a power bump. Like a petrochemical nova the main flare blossomed into a fireball much, much larger than I had ever seen before, and I had to wonder if perhaps we had been in more danger than we’d imagined…or been told. Had we been in mortal peril? I doubt it – we may have gotten a little crispy around the edges, but the task had been more hazardous in anticipation than in actual execution. Still, I was just as glad the assignment was completed.
My near crisping seemed the perfect event to mark my exit from the abbreviated summer at Swanson River and the crew I’d worked with during those three weeks. As we bounced along the road to the change-shed I felt a measure of relief at the idea of parting company with my crewmates. Though rough around the edges, they had been a competent group, but I didn’t see any of them achieving much in life beyond this job. Maybe it was their innate nature, something they were born with that kept them at that lower level. Maybe some people were meant to be lower than others…
…and “son-of-a-bitch I cannot believe what I am saying!”
Growing up as a blue-collar kid in Alaska had always set me apart to some extent and I’d always imagined that added experience made me a little more capable and mature. After all I had shot my first moose at age eleven (keeping meant on the table for most of the winter), at fifteen I’d replaced a universal joint on a friend’s car, at seventeen I’d remodeled my attic loft, but at twenty I desperately wanted it to be someone else sounding as judgmental as the “ungrateful yuppie larva”5 I was attending classes with at school.
..but it was me. I had been just as prideful and arrogant, so maybe this crapulent summer hadn’t been all bad. I had been proud – maybe too proud – of my summer job at Swanson River. There were married men with families clamoring to get hired there but I had been little more than a punk kid treating my good fortune as an entitlement. When I eventually went back to work for Chevron three summers later I went with a much better attitude, but for the time being I resolved to avoid being judgmental…even about other people being judgmental.
1. 99 and 44/100 % Caucasian
2. I couldn’t fault him as the featured Playmate for that issue had a passing resemblance to Diana Rigg AKA Emma Peel from the ’60s British spy series The Avengers who I had quite the crush on when I was thirteen.
3. It was quite a bit taller too. Production operators would normally use a burning rag tied to a rock to keep pilot lights lit at the flare outlets at the tank settings. For the main flare they had to use a bow and burning arrow.
4. I still stand back and mumble to myself “right-tighty/lefty-loosey”.
5.A line shamelessly stolen from Dan Ackroyd playing Ray Stantz in “Ghostbusters 2”