The Storm

16 July 1972, Eloy, Arizona

There’s pipe in the derrick, Howard says.

Shit, Steve replies, they’re coming out.

Howard parks his car in front of the doghouse. He and Steve and Rudy and I climb up the steep stairs to the doghouse, exchange clean levis for dirty ones, pull on steel-toed boots, grab gloves and hard hats, and step out onto the floor where eight stands of pipe stand dripping. More than ninety stands remain in the ground.

While the daylight tour (pronounced tower) dresses, Rudy and I check the water and oil in all the engines – the three drawworks diesels, the two diesels in the powerhouse, and the three pump engines. When we return to the floor Steve is already in the derrick.

Let’s do it, girls, Howard says.

Rudi swings the elevators into position, pulls the handles abruptly. The heavy steel slams shut around the tapered tooljoint. Howard guns the motor, lets out the clutch and the drawworks begin to raise the eight-thousand-foot string of pipe. Thick black steel cable snakes onto the drawworks drum. The derrick settles under the weight and Rudi and I hold the slips around the rising pipe until they are clear of the hole and we can set them back on the rotary table. One thirty-foot section of pipe passes, then another, then a third. Howard cuts the motor, Rudi and I kick in the slips, and the pipe settles into their tungsten grip. Rudi swings his tong onto the bottom tool-joint, levers it tight. I swing mine onto the top one, make it grip. Howard activates the cathead, jerks my tong to break loose the tightly torqued joint. We release the tongs and Rudi swings over the twenty-foot mud-box dangling on a boom line. I wrestle it around the pipe, fasten three latches. Howard reverses the rotary table, backs the bottom pipe out of the top one’s embrace. There is a whoosh of mud in the mud-box and onto the rotary table – ninety feet of mud from the now dangling string of pipe. I swing the mud-box to Rudi and pull the hanging pipe across the slippery floor to where the eight rows of pipe already stand. Howard eases the pipe down as I press my thigh against the warm, wet, abrasive metal, guiding the descending end into the line of pipes. When the pipe strikes the floor it breaks loose from the elevators above. High on the derrick, Steve leans against a safety belt, hangs out over emptiness to unlatch the elevators. He maneuvers the pipe along the catwalk to moor it with a slipknot between two steel fingers. While Steve works, Howard lowers the elevators and Rudi latches them around the next tool-joint.

Elevators latched, pipe up, slips in, tongs on, reverse torque, tongs off, mud-box, whoosh, pipe into line, elevators off, waiting fingers, elevators down, elevators shut, elevators up, elevators open, elevators down, shut, up, open, down, shut, up. A dozen stands of steaming streaming pipe, two dozen, three.

Methodically, incrementally, we raise the worn bit from the bottom of the hole. To the west the sun falls behind thick clouds. Then it is night and we work on in bright pools of artificial light. Four bodies working rhythmically, steadily, in concert. A full moon rises from behind Picacho Peak.

We grow warm with exertion, then weary. Clouds obscure the moon. The derrick thrusts upward amidst desert rock and vegetation, engines roar and fall silent and roar in predictable intervals. The rig floor sways and creaks, ropes and cables sing. A breeze springs up, intensifies to gusts. Fat drops of rain splatter the rig floor. Whipped by gusting winds, periodic rainsqualls shudder the derrick. The gathering ranks of pipe drone like the organ pipes they resemble, taught cables whistle high notes.

Suddenly the monotony of rising drill pipe gives way to the massive shining columns of drill collars. Breaking the rhythm of hours, Rudi hauls over a larger set of slips and I drag over the safety collar. We strain against our slipping tongs, making them bite on the hard steel to work loose the collars. We push and pull the massive ninety-foot column of drill collars across the floor, slipping and swearing, pulling and pushing till we can finally guide the shaft to where Howard lowers it to the floor. A final stand of drill collars rises, punctuated finally by the drill bit. The bit’s three interlocking wheels are worn smooth, its jets blocked.

I drag a safety plate over the hole. Rudi waddles out of the doghouse, his fist clenched inside the hollow center of a new Hughs button bit that hangs heavy between his legs. We pop plastic guards out of the jet holes and insert new jets. I daub greenish-blue drill-collar dope onto the threads and Rudi and I, holding the bit between us, circle the hanging drill collar, screwing the bit up into the waiting orifice.

You girls get something to eat, Howard shouts over the wind, waving at Steve to come down. For ten minutes we slump in the doghouse, eating sandwiches, candy bars, and fruit, drinking water, coffee, and coke. Steve, uncharacteristically, sits alone in a corner, eating deliberately, his eyes fixed on the floor. He carefully folds a napkin, latches his lunchbox, opens his locker, takes out two pair of new gloves and a clean white towel which he wraps around his neck. He painstakingly cleans the bottoms of his boots, then leans forward, elbows on his thighs, and fixes his eyes on the floor.

Howard stands up, adjusts his hard hat, pulls up his drooping levis, and walks out to the controls.

The return trip commences. First the bit and drill collars, gingerly, ponderously descend into the hole. Then the first stands of drill pipe, a little awkwardly at first, a new, reverse operation. Gradually we settle into a new rhythm, faster than the trip out, less margin for error. Accelerating engines swiftly raise the empty, open elevators up the derrick. Steve thrusts the drill-pipe he cradles into the center of the derrick where it strikes the elevators, snapping them shut around the tool-joint. They rise for a moment, snatching the pipe off the floor where I catch it, letting it jerk me across the muddy floor to the center where Rudi waits with a chain wrapped four times around the tool-joint, the chain’s braided-rope tail and some slack in his hands. I fight to stab the vibrating, descending burden into the top of the waiting pipe. I step back and Rudi, with a swinging left arm and a deft, powerful flick of his wrist, throws the wraps of the chain from the bottom joint to the top and then leans back to hold the chain taut. Howard activates the machinery that sucks the chain in, pulling it so the pipe twirls in the chain’s steel grasp, spinning the pipe down into the threads of the pipe below. Rudi releases the chain as it pulls free and raises his tong from the bottom joint to the top while I swing my tong onto the bottom joint. Howard jerks back Rudi’s tong to tighten the connection. Rudi and I release each other’s tongs, reach for the handles of the slips, pull them up as Howard raises the elevators a foot. Slips out, Howard lowers the pipe into the hole. With pipe-dope brush in hand, I watch for the pipe to stop moving, kick in my side of the slips while Rudi does the same on his side. I unlatch the elevators and as they rise to the top of another stand of pipe, dope the threads of the pipe caught in the slips. Rudi puts his tong just below the tool-joint, tugs out the chain and wraps it around the pipe above his tongs. Steve throws the pipe into the ascending elevators, I catch the bucking, rising pipe, ride it across the floor, stab it into the waiting joint. Rudi throws the chain, twirls the pipe down, tongs up and on, connection tight, tongs off, slips out, pipe up and down, slips in, elevators off and up, pipe dope, tongs and chain, on and on and on, deeper into the hole, deeper into the stormy night.

The wind rises again. Twice, gusts swing the rising elevators away from pipe Steve has thrown out to meet them and the long stand crashes across the derrick, requiring a minutes-long delay as Steve unbuckles himself from the safety belt, edges around the wet, swaying derrick to pull a rope around the pipe, then carefully climb back to draw the stand to the catwalk where it once again can be thrown out into the waiting embrace of the elevators. Now and then through the night Steve yells down to halt the process. He gets to his knees and slowly wipes the catwalk dry with his white towel. Once he asks for a new towel to be sent up.

At about eleven, a half-an-hour before the morning tour is due, with only five hundred feet of pipe left, the last of the clouds blow over, taking with them the sporadic rain, unveiling the bright, pure, cold light of the moon. The wind dies and we work on in the relative quite of roaring diesel engines and clanging metal. We put down the last of the pipe, Howard resumes the drilling. Steve climbs down from the derrick. We clean up and change our clothes, and when the morning tour arrives they find us sitting in a quiet line in the doghouse.

About Scott Abbott

Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University, 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I'm Director of the Program in Integrated Studies and former Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade), and translations of a book by Austrian author Peter Handke and of a catalogue of an exhibit called "The German Army and Genocide." More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as a watershed scientist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a corrections officer, as university students, and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett and our yellow dog Blue. Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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