On What Would Have Been His 63rd Birthday

On John’s birthday, 23 years after his death, I remember us standing together in front of our house in Farmington, New Mexico for a photo:


Separated by nearly 2 years, the first two of 8 children, we had our many differences. And similarities. One thing we shared was summer work as roughnecks in the oilfields surrounding Farmington. We never worked on the same rig, but John would have known the following scene as well as I do.

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 are dripping. More than ninety stands remain in the ground.

            While the daylight tour (pronounced tower) changes back into their street clothes, Rudy and I check the water and oil in 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 slams the elevators shut around the tapered tool-joint. Howard guns the draw-works engine, the derrick settles under the weight of the eight-thousand-foot string of pipe. 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 that dangles 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 pipe’s embrace. Mud whooshes into the mud-box and onto the rotary table. Rudi sets the mud-box aside while I pull the hanging pipe across the slippery floor. Howard eases the pipe down as I press my thigh against the warm, wet, abrasive metal, guiding the descending end into place against the other pipes. Steve leans out against a safety belt to unlatch the elevators. He maneuvers the pipe back along the catwalk to moor it with a slipknot between two steel fingers. 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, whoosh, pipe into line, elevators off, elevators down, elevators shut, elevators up, elevators open, elevators down, shut, up, open, down, shut, up. A dozen stands of steaming wet 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. Night gathers and we work on in bright pools of artificial light. Four bodies move 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 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. Taut cables whistle high notes.

Abruptly, the monotony of rising drill pipe is interrupted by 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 drill collars across the floor, slipping and swearing and shoving it into place next to the drill pipe. 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. We break it loose from the drill collar with our tongs.

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. 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, beef jerky, candy bars, pastries, fruit, sucking down water, coffee, fruit juice, and coke. 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. Then the first stands of drill pipe. 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 into the center of the derrick where it strikes the elevators, snapping them shut around the tool-joint. I catch the abruptly rising pipe, letting it jerk me across the muddy floor to 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. He leans back to hold the chain taut while Howard activates the machinery that sucks in the chain, spinning the pipe down into the threads of the pipe below. We tighten the connection with our tongs, pull out the slips with the rising pipe, watch the pipe descend, kick in the slips, unlatch the elevators, dope the pipe threads, catch the bucking, rising pipe, ride it across the floor, stab it into the waiting joint, throw the chain, twirl 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.

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 descends from the derrick. We clean up and change clothes. The morning tour arrives.


. . . finally, in celebration, some of this morning’s penstemons for John (wish I could share the scent as well), and last night’s sky as a mourning cloak:



About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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