1973: Main Flare

“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.


Notes

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”

1976: “What Gang Did You Run With?

swanson river

The first missionary I ever met made the best observation about the experience that I would ever hear:

  • He couldn’t wait to finish the best two years of his life.
  • He was glad he went on a mission but didn’t know if he’d do it again.
  • Two years goes by a lot faster than you think.

I thought about those comments on the long flight(s) from Boston back home to Alaska and as the hours went by I came up with a couple observations of my own:

  • I had knocked on approximately 100,000 doors during my two years in New England.1
  • Going home from a mission was as scary as going out in the first place.

Any major change will bring on anxiety but it didn’t help that I was leaving the best area and companion of my entire two years of bicycle penance. Many of my missionary peers  considered Fall River (MA) to be one of the toughest to work in but I found the maritime climate pleasant and the extensive Portuguese influence intriguing2. In a similar vein I must have been friends with Elder Phil Haslam in a former life. I couldn’t have picked a better “last” companion – With our similar interests and talents we didn’t tract as much as put on a portable door-to-door comedy act that brought greater success to our labors than a more conservative approach.

My passage home was for the most part uneventful; I did go through a slight moment of disorientation when I was given my formal release3 but all too soon I was crumpled on the bunk in my attic loft bedroom, totally exhausted and jet-lagged but mentally agitated about the next phase in my life. I wanted to achieve my bachelor’s degree and a commission as second lieutenant in the army as soon as I could but I had a formidable obstacle to overcome first:

Swanson River Oil Field.

By the end of the coming week I would be back at work for Chevron USA at the Swanson River Oil Field and I had mixed feelings about doing so. I had worked on the field twice before –as a roustabout for Chevron in 1972 and a general laborer for Northern Oil Operations in 1973. My time there had been a “qualified” success. The first summer I was an adequate worker but I failed to get hired back the following year and was able to get on with Northern Oil scant weeks before my return to school in the fall.4

I hoped that during the intervening years I’d changed for the better –between ROTC and my mission experience I had developed an elevated level of discipline, industry and initiative.  I decided that I was going to apply those lessons when I returned to the oil field and a job that paid extremely well, a job that I wanted to keep coming back to every summer until I finished my studies. My only hesitation was a social concern as most of the people I would be working with had life styles  much more hedonistic than mine. I wondered if there would be mockery or harassment, but given the emotional gauntlet missionaries have to run daily I figured I could handle anything in the locker room.

I needn’t have worried; while TH Auldridge was still the roustabout gang foreman, there had been a 90% turnover among the crew during the preceding three years. There were extensive changes among the production operators, mechanics and other workers on the field as well so it looked like I would be making a fresh start.

TH and his family were also our closest neighbors so I’d hitch rides with him a couple of days each week.  I was hesitant about riding with him to begin with – he had been pretty gruff that first summer on the lease, with an endless litany of corrections about everything from the way I put my paycheck in my pocket to how I addressed other men on the job. It turned out to be a much different situation this time around – he took interest in my mission experiences and plans for the future and in turn shared stories about his service in World War II and his subsequent career in the oil field.  The closest he came that summer to a critical remark was when he told me “a man don’t need to run while he’s working” when I would hustle between the tool truck and work in progress.

I came to see him in a new light as I did other more seasoned men like the head mechanic Ken Slater. My mother and younger sisters belonged to the same Girl Scout troop as Ken’s wife and daughters and I’d spent an evening or two in his home when I was dating a young lady they’d taken under their wing.  That familiarity may have been the reason he was slower to accept my changes as genuine, but that hesitation left the day he stopped by while I was working at the shop located by the field main office.

I was using a steamer to clean some heavily encrusted valves that TH wanted to repurpose for repairs on a washed out line.  As Ken started talking to me I could hear just a trace of a familiar accent in his voice that I hadn’t noticed in years past. I knew that the Slater family  had moved to Alaska from California but there was almost an east coast inflection to the words he spoke. Finally my curiosity got the best of me and I asked him where his home had been – where he’d grown up.

He grew quiet, started to fidget a bit then began; “It’s not something I talk about very often. I grew in a rough environment. There was a lot of poverty, a lot of despair and I wound up running with a gang when I was a teenager.” He continued “I doubt if you’ve ever heard of the place – it’s so far away from here. It’s a town on the southwest coast of Massachusetts called Fall River”.

I replied casually: “So….did you run with the Flint Street Gang or the Tecumseh Street gang?”

It was the classic deer-in-the-headlights look. Ken stood there tongue-tied, his eyes darting left and right then quietly said “What?”

For a millisecond I was torn – do I mess with his head or do I let him off – but respect won out over snarkiness. Instead of laughing I smiled and told him that less than a month earlier I had been in Fall River living on the more peaceful end of one of those streets. He chuckled and said that I was the first person he’d met in twenty years who knew where Fall River was located, not to mention knowing individual street names. We continued to chat for a couple of minutes then he left for the compressor plant and I finished cleaning the gunked-up valve.

I’d driven to work that day and without a passenger or working radio I was alone with my thoughts on the dusty commute home. When I was younger my quick wit had been the only defense in a bipolar household so the street gang response had happened automatically. I’d put Ken in an awkward situation and in earlier years I would have drawn out the moment for maximum amusement, but this time was different – I’d eased Ken’s bewilderment almost immediately. Was it only because of the respect I had for a great mechanic, father, and man of faith?  Was I feeling empathy for his discombobulation after twenty-four months of being on the receiving end of verbal harassment myself?

…or was there a third option? When I got home from New England all I heard at first was how different I looked. True – I had shed 30 pounds since 1973 and I was a better worker, but perhaps the most important difference was something that was not readily visible.

…maybe I had grown up just a little bit


 

1. During August of 1975 I kept track of the number the doors we knocked on in one hour. I multiplied that number times the average number of hours we went tracting each week then multiplied that by the 104 weeks I spent as a missionary… and got approximately 100,000 doors.

2. A local humorist dubbed the Braga Bridge over the Taunton River as the longest in the world because it stretched from Massachusetts to Portugal.

3.As the district president was conducting my release interview I slowly realized that I’d been in that room back when another family had owned the house – it had been my friend Mike’s bedroom. President Lind figured I was just happy to be home but I was trying not to laugh  as I sat there in my suit, white shirt and tie and trying not to think about sitting in that same place in 1971 knocking back beers while listening to “Funk 49” by the James Gang.    Isn’t repentance great?

4. At the time I was told that the summer hire positions were to be given to minority applicants as part of a Federal equal rights quota. To his death bed my father maintained that I was not hired as a form of retaliation against him for his union activities, but when he broached the subject 6 months before I came home he was told that as long as I had improved my driving habits I was welcome back.

1976: Can You Ship a Pig?

It was a slow period for the battalion – it was the middle of the winter of 1982 and there were no field exercises scheduled until May so I decided to get in a couple hours of night flying. My flight instructor Don suggested we fly down to Kenai and back one Wednesday evening and I agreed:  – traffic in the air is scarce during the middle of a winter week and when he offered to pick up the tab for a sandwich at the Kenai terminal I was sold.

After the customary “Kick the tire/light the fire/take a leak” preflight ritual we took off from Fort Richardson and happily set course southwest. It was a nice night for flying with very little turbulence and a full moon to help with navigation – in fact the moonlight over the snow was so bright Don was able to pick out buildings and terrain features as easily as he would during the day.

15 minutes out he looked down and asked “I wonder what that is down there?” the “that” being a fairly well spread out pattern of dimly lit buildings and sparsely traveled gravel roads.  I looked down and started rattling off details

  • “Oh, that’s tank setting 215
  • That’s P&S
  • To our left are the two compressor plants
  • To the right is the office and change room
  • Right now we are flying over tank setting 3-4”

Don looked at me stunned – then I laughed and told him that I had worked “down there” for a good part of the 1970s, “down there” being the Swanson River Oil Field.

As I’ve written elsewhere my undergraduate years were very different from most other design majors. While my classmates went to Europe or held internships in design firms I worked as a roustabout for Chevron USA at Swanson River. It was the kind of summer job that drew snarky remarks from my classmates at the university, the common assumption being that it was a job that required a lot more out of my biceps than my brains, but that assumption would be anything but true over the course of my seasonal employment  there. It took just as much thinking as any college class, albeit a different kind of thinking.

It was a well paid job located in one of the most beautiful locales on earth, but what really made it great were the people I worked with. For example, T.H. Auldridge was the gang foreman, and I give him as much credit as any other human being for anything I may have become or accomplished in my life. He fought across Europe as a tank destroyer commander during WWII, and despite the lack of a college education or any sort of management training, he was one of the best leaders and smartest men I have ever known

When I started there I was surprised to find that the physical layout of the field required judicious study.  The field is located in the middle of a game preserve and is leased rather than purchased so everything will have to be restored to pristine condition when the oil runs out.  It’s also a gas injection field, which means there aren’t any of those “bobbing elephant” pumps most people associate with oil fields – the oil is situated under an impermeable shale layer and requires an alternate method of extraction. At various sites holes are bored down through that layer and propane is forced down through those holes which in turn force the oil back up –like blowing bubbles through a straw into your milkshake.

chemical truck

In order to keep various lines clear and pumping the system requires the addition of several chemicals which were periodically delivered and maintained by a dedicated truck and driver. Interestingly enough his official job title was “Chemical Truck Driver”, and while the job was rarely given to a summer hire, it has always been a point of pride that I was the chemical truck man and paid Roustabout ”A” wages from my second year on. I’m also proud of the fact that at the end of each summer as I would get ready to go back to school management would ask me to stay on as a permanent hire. I appreciated the gesture but invariably went back to school, however leaving wasn’t easy.   My heart really wasn’t in college – reality was Swanson River and working in oil production. School was just something I did until it was time to head back north to my coveralls, boots and hard-hat.

Which brings us back full circle to our title: A pig is a tool for cleaning; as the Chemical Truck Driver one of my duties was to “ship a pig” each week, sending one of them through the pipeline to the refinery in North Kenai. The pig in question is a heavy duty cleaning tool measuring two feet long and was made of a series of thick rubber discs and metal brushes welded to a steel rood. As the pig moves through the pipeline it scours out the asphalt build up inside the pipeline until the pressure of the moving oil propels it to a “pig catcher” at the refinery on the other end. Because the asphalt could build up rather quickly pigs were sent down the line twice a week; failure to do so would result in:

  1. A reduction of the volume of oil transported
  2. An increase in the operating pressure within the line
  3. Excessive wear and tear on the pipeline itself.

The pig launcher at our end of the line functioned like an airlock providing access underwater. The flow of oil would be diverted, the launcher opened, the pig inserted and the launcher closed up again. The launching procedure was simple but allowed no room for error; manipulating the valves in the wrong order could result in a blow-out at worst or at best a failed launch with the pig lodged just ten feet or so past the insertion point. Consequently shipping a pig was a precise procedure that took concentration and attention-to-detail when it was being performed.

I never saw a mishap with a pig, but my foreman TH had witnessed a near-disaster. It was during a labor dispute years before I was hired that required Chevron to form a crew of replacements made up of administrators, engineers and other white collar workers to serve in place of the regular roustabout crew. It was all a big joke to those replacements until problems started cropping up, which they almost immediately did. To begin with they exhausted the entire annual budget for spare parts within ten days when they used all-new parts and pipe to make repairs: under TH’s guidance the same repairs would have been made by carefully repairing / recycling old material left over from earlier work. Shortly after that debacle several hundred gallons of solvent were spilled and lost when a replacement incorrectly set valves during a bulk off-loading. As bad as those two mishaps were, the near-miss at the pig launcher would have taken the entire field down.

Dual roles within the union and as crew foreman often took TH out to the field, and during one of those visits he happened to drive by the launcher just as it was being loaded by a replacement. He stopped to chat but as he glanced at the launcher he saw that the valves weren’t set correctly. He dove out of his truck and saved the field from a crippling blow-out only after physically pulling the replacement away from the launcher seconds before spinning that last crucial valve wheel. The air turned blue as tempers flared and harsh words were exchanged, but after a second look at the way the valve handles were set the replacement realized TH had just prevented him from “buying a ticket to Libya”1This story taught me that there is something to be said about the value of practical experience over theory and trade schools or university degrees. The replacement in this story had a Masters Degree in Engineering but that didn’t prevent him from almost losing the entire output of the Swanson River Oil Field. While I have three degrees and I’ve been a professor for the last thirty years I often startle friends and students when I come out strongly in favor of trade school. I think it is unfortunate that a good blue collar trade has lost much of the attraction it had when I was young. But when I think back to events like this I am very glad that someone decided that experience with a pipe wrench took precedence over solving equations.

—————————————————————————————————————–

  1. At the time Chevron’s least popular facility was located in Libya and involuntary reassignment there could be offered in lieu of termination for cause (as was the case when a former plant foreman that ended up there after the main compressor plant underwent a massive explosion on his watch).

To get the full effect this photo should have an accompanying “scratch-n-sniff” strip but I don’t know where to get a sample of “eau de crude oil”

RoustaboutDave