Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Piper

My first offshore rig job was on the Piper Alpha. I didn’t know it at the time but the Piper was one of the biggest, oldest, most profitable production platforms in the British sector of the North Sea. I emerged onto the helideck from my first chopper ride with the wide-eyed feeling you tried to hide on your first trip offshore. I had time to dump my duffel bag in the cabin they assigned me, get some pairs of coveralls, a bag of gloves. It wasn’t a normal crew change. I was replacing a guy who got hurt and medivacced off the night before. I started a twelve-hour shift with a crew of three other roustabouts and the crane driver, Kenny. I was bunking in with Kenny for an unknown reason. Normally, the four roustabouts, alternating twelve hour shifts, shared cabins with their opposite numbers. Mine was a bottom bunk in a room of crane drivers. Kenny was the boss of the crane drivers. I was replacing a guy on his crew, so we slept and worked at the same time. My first job, on my first shift as a roustabout, was dumping fifty-five gallon drums of radioactive shale into the sea. I watched the roughnecks shovel the shale into a drum on the drill floor. In addition to their usual coveralls, they wore outer suits which looked like rubber. It was supposed to be protection against the radioactivity in the rock that was coming out of the hole. Because of the work on the drill floor, the protective suits were shredded and torn, hanging off the roughnecks in strips. There was an engineer running up and down the catwalk with a crackling Geiger counter. Roughnecks, in the smoke room, joked about watching their appendages fall off. The smoke room provided breaks in the twelve hour shifts, scenes of laughter, boredom and rage. When you were new, they tested you. They tried to scare you, probe you, disturb you, wind you up. Then they sat back, chuckled at your reaction. The Scots were masters at this. It seemed to be a racially imbedded talent. All done in good humour, anything for a laugh. During one of those breaks, soaked in mud and oil from relieving the roughnecks, I listened to one the veterans talk. He looked around the steel room, at the walls. “You could put your fist through the legs of this old piece of shit. If there’s ever gonna be a disaster in the North Sea, it’ll be on this old piece of shit” I didn’t think much about it at the time. I laughed like everyone else. There were moments in the next years when I did think about it, though. His words came back to me on other rigs, as I was getting cozy in a bunk. Exhaustion, food, a hot shower, warm inside; outside, a gale blowing between the Shetlands and Norway. Nights like that, I remembered, had a shiver, as sleep descended. Was it just another trick to scare a green hand? The old guy who said it, didn’t laugh. By the time the crane brought the first drum down from the drill floor, I had been told what to do by the man I relieved. When the crane driver lowered the drum, I gave him a signal to stop at the right spot so I could tip it over the rail, while he held the weight. As I tipped the first few drums of shale over the side, I was thinking about the wisdom of dumping radioactive rocks into the North Sea. Who would believe me onshore, who would care? There was no point in complaining. This was the job I’d tried so hard to get. What choice did I have? Pack my bags and wait for the next flight on the helideck? So when the drums of radioactive shale descended from the sky, seawater pouring out of holes in the sides, I dumped the grey, flat pieces, hoping they wouldn’t poison anything. The Piper Alpha, like most platforms, had big cranes on opposite sides of the deck. The deck held all the pipe and equipment needed on the drill floor. Almost everything brought on board was moved by container. Supply ships filled the deck with steel containers which had to be stacked on top of each other, for lack of space. The roustabouts, one with a radio on the same the frequency as the crane driver, landed the containers and pipe. The crane driver moved back and forth between the cranes, depending upon the load, where he had to pick it up, where he had to land it. A night shift, on deck, in a North Sea gale, wasn’t a good time to discover that Kenny was near sighted. The remarks weren’t made by the other roustabouts, as I suspected, to try to scare me. In the black and white shadows of the big, swaying lights, in the horizontal rain, it was an unwelcome revelation. Kenny’s cranes lifted tons of steel from the decks of bobbing sea going tugs, up over the sides of the platform, across containers of different heights. They said that it was his perspective which was bad. On those stormy nights, when it was hard to see and he was tired, the best tactics were to find the spot the container was supposed to go, do your best to signal him and get out of the way. You always looked around for an escape route, in case he didn’t see you. Your greasy rain suit and slipping boots didn’t help when you were being chased across the container tops by steel boxes, in high winds. What could you do about a crane driver with bad eye sight? Everyone knew about it, but no one seemed to care. Kenny was Kenny. He was a fixture, no one had been killed or crushed yet. During my time offshore with Kenny and the boys I did little except eat, sleep and shower when we weren’t working. On occasion, I lay half asleep in my bunk, while Kenny did business with visitors from all parts of the rig. I had long ago given up trying to sort out the dialects of the British Isles. Many of the thousands of offshore workers were from Northern England and Scotland. The money to be made on the rigs, for fishermen who were risking much more, for no guaranteed income, drew the coastal Scots like flies. Since they were sailors to begin with, they knew about ropes, knots, shackles, hard graft in the rottenest weather. It was understood that they would prefer to fish rather than this, but their fishery was in trouble, they had families. The oil business, like the British military, was happy to recruit there, because they knew the value of the workers. The industrial cities of Britain all sent men to work offshore. There were men from the islands and from small farm villages. There were ex military men as well as merchant mariners driven off their decks by containers. When you mixed in some Aussies and Kiwis, you came close to Babylon when they all spoke fast, at once. Many of Kenny’s conversations took place while I was in the cabin but were unintelligible to me, though I heard them. The language was impossible to understand. Kenny, was a partner with another crane driver in a pornographic video scam. He got videos for the rig. Probably he was selling them to individuals, as well. I laid in my bunk, reading, when a conversation about videos took place. It was business talk with a group of guys, about a week after I arrived. By then, Kenny judged me to be safe to have around. He knew that I was only there till the end of the hitch, I’d probably never be back. On this old rig, the crews were pretty well set. The company had a seniority list they’d use if the injured man didn’t return. As they left the cabin, one guy told me to keep my mouth shut by zipping his lip. I nodded. He left with a smile. What was I going to say about it? I had enough problems surviving the twelve hour shifts. We were a hundred ninety kilometres northeast of Aberdeen in the North Sea. Like dumping the shale into the ocean, it seemed a necessary compromise. I did the job, kept my mouth shut, in return for good money and experience offshore. The first step in working offshore was to get experience. It was the first thing they asked when you applied for a job. When you had worked offshore once, you were ahead of the game. There were piles of applications for the jobs on each company’s desk. It was the classic catch - 22. The Piper had two theatres. There was a regular theatre, with comfortable movie type seating, where they showed contemporary movies. They even had a guy outside the theatre with a request sheet on a clipboard. If you wanted to request a movie, they’d try to get it. The other theatre, with the same interior, was strictly for porn. Kenny had a connection, through the supply ships, to Denmark, where they manufacture a lot of porn. He got every kind of porn. I tried the porn theatre one night. I didn’t like it. There were forty or fifty guys sitting together with their hands in the pockets of their accommodation coveralls, watching endless sex videos. Living for two weeks with two hundred men was bad enough. That just made it worse. I went to bed. Kenny and his boys were busy. To supplement the porn enterprise, they were stealing from the containers. Word was, there were cartons of cigarettes and booze stashed all over the rig. As the roustabouts and crane driver landed containers on the deck, they tried to place the ones for the galley as close to the accommodation as possible. There was even a small deck outside the back door of the galley where some containers could be landed. That was supposed to be the end of the roustabouts’ and crane drivers’ dealings with those containers. Certain sealed containers were locked by Customs and Excise. They were opened only by the galley boss, emptied into the galley by the stewards. There was no drinking allowed offshore but at Christmas each man was allowed one beer and a cigar. It varied from company to company, rig to rig. Who knew what the bosses got shipped in? Teetotallers became very popular around Christmas time, offshore. The Christmas I was there, Kenny’s gang, the other crane driver and some roustabouts, managed to land the special containers at night, break into them, steal the booze and cigarettes. They had a system of ripping off the containers, stashing the goods, blaming it on the cooks and stewards. I didn’t know anything about it at the time. It could have happened on a shift when I was working. There were jobs all over the rig to which Kenny could have assigned me to get me out of the way. There were no fire drills when I was there. No one knew if the evacuation procedures would work. The platform kept pumping oil, one hundred twenty thousand barrels a day, everybody made good money, the company was happy. The British government collected five hundred million pounds a year, in revenues, from the Piper Alpha. When my hitch ended on the Piper, I took the taxi from the heliport to the warm Aberdeen pubs to have a drink with the boys, say our goodbyes. I met one of them, a few years later, in Aberdeen. He had left the Piper, was working on another rig, like myself. He told me that the police had finally raided the platform, searched lockers and the rest of the rig from top to bottom, found all kinds of contraband including a working homebrew still. Some guys lost their jobs, some were charged. I assumed Kenny would have been fired. But, sometimes, guys like him never get caught. Even if he did get run off of the Piper, it might have saved his life. A few years later, I was in Ottawa, trying to deal with my mother’s Alzheimer’s. It was a major change after what I’d been doing for the past twenty years. I picked up the paper outside of the apartment we shared. The headline read, ‘153 missing in rig disaster’. Two hundred, twenty-seven men, including construction workers, were working the night shift or in their bunks. The ones inside the accommodation, near the centre of the platform, were killed immediately by the explosion and shaft of fire, which sucked up all the oxygen. The ones working their shift up on deck, were lucky. One survivor said, “It was a case of over the side or die there”. They jumped seventy metres into the heaving, black North Sea. Some were rescued. The emergency procedures didn’t work, nor did the lifeboats. As for the spark which ignited the leaking gas, a welder’s torch was suggested, but it could just as easily have been a guy having a smoke where he wasn’t supposed to. Some of the men I worked with were on the Piper, that night. There were stewards, cooks, office workers, even a few roustabouts, who were lifers on the platforms. They said goodbye to families and friends, went off to work for two weeks at a time, for their whole working lives. Two weeks off every month beat a nine to five. The money was good, there were no expenses at work except tobacco and toothpaste. Your bed was made, your laundry done, there was good food, all you could eat every day, prepared by professional chefs. Many guys got addicted to it. They couldn’t work any other way. The longer you did it, the harder it was to leave. Those crews packed their bags for that two week trip in the summer of 1988, said their goodbyes, never came back. The final count was 164 dead.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Hockey Game

It started up around Fort Coulonge. We were ice fishing down past Quyon, when it got to us. It was a heated affair by then. Somehow, the boys in Portage du Fort had trained a moose to wear a bridle. He liked the hay and oats that the Walkers fed their horse, wanted some too. There was Big Herbie Walker and his brother, Silas. They were thrown out of the logging camps for drinking and fighting enough times, nobody would hire them. They tried their hands at farming, but it was too hard, so they did odd jobs around town. When they weren’t working, they spent half their time in the Campbell’s Bay lockup, the other half, drunk. The Walkers acquired a whole sled full of hockey sticks, probably stole them, said they were payment of a debt. They used the horse balls produced by Ned, their old sleigh pulling nag, as pucks. They tied the moose, named Gerald, to the rear of the sled, started a game. It might have been the wind that pushed them downriver, maybe they just yearned for freedom, we’ll never know. There were some farmers who weren’t logging and some ne’er do wells, who could skate, from Sand Bay, who joined the game where the river widened there. Baad Fred, from Shawville, happened to be hauling ice from the river when he saw them. It was said that he had an unnatural affinity for sheep. He always wore rubber boots. Whenever Baad Fred entered a bar or a pool hall, the imitations of bleating of sheep began. He never noticed, never caught on. It could just be a rural legend. The boys from Quyon would believe it of a Shawville native and vice versa, but that was just because they didn’t like each other. Fred became the number one goalie for the team going downriver. When the wind was against him, he’d play goal for the team going upriver, but moving backwards. They reached us the first night. The score had long been forgotten, initial fights were over, the group of them seemed content to skate down the river, some forward, some backward, passing jugs as they went. The boys were playing on teams which nobody could identify except the players. Silas Walker drove the sled, Big Herbie played defence. Gerald walked behind. They had Billy Aye on the right wing. Billy’s nickname was “Swoop’‘ because of his patented style, bearing down on goal. If you hit his stick with the horse ball at exactly the right time, he was sure to score. If you didn’t, he still swooped, made an impressive display, but never scored. One night, soon after we joined the game, Billy swooped, missed, disappeared. No one stopped to see where he went. It wasn’t till the next morning, we noticed Billy wasn’t around. The glass half full consensus was that he got bored, went back to robbing banks. The glass half empty held that he swooped into open water. We’ ll never know. By the time they got to us at Quyon, the game had picked up a life of it’s own. That night, the laziest man among us would rather play hockey than sit still. It was in our blood A whole gang joined the game around Arnprior, ice fishermen there on the river. The Boar from North Gower was there, in the pack of them from the Ontario side. They were like dogs, once the hockey fever seized them. The ones from Carp were crazed. There was a lot of blood spilled when the game arrived in a new town. Things eventually cooled down, but boys will be boys. The McGraws were known as the type of men who’d rather fight than eat. They were employed as bouncers, to clean up unruly bars. They could skate because they were from Quyon. They could fight because they were McGraws. It was always a help to us, to have them out in front when we approached the fishing shacks outside the next town. The St. Pierre brothers joined the game around Eardley, on the Quebec side of the river. They were known as the “crash line” because they kept crashing into each other. There was Rainy, Rene and Renny. Whenever you passed them a horse ball and yelled “Rainy”, they’d all hear their own name and go for it at once. It saved a lot of high speed collisions to pass it to someone else. They were fine when they didn’t have the puck (real pucks entered the game and disappeared regularly) but they were a danger to themselves and others when they got a pass. By the time we got past Aylmer, on the river between Ottawa and Hull, hundreds had joined the game. The Gatineau River contributed hordes from the towns on the Quebec side. Men in Hull and Ottawa looked south and north, respectively, saw the game, took days off to join. There was a lot of carousing and fighting when the game passed the Parliament Buildings. Taverns sent their staffs down to the river to take care of their customers, catering companies were run off their feet. Three days and nights passed before the game moved east on the river. The teams from upriver took the side of Quebecers in the large brawls. Some of the fast, little Frenchmen were big scorers. The Quebecers always came up with a good goalie. The boys slept, ate, drank, in shifts. Many from upriver, thought nothing of collapsing for a few hours on the Walkers’ sled. Gerald the moose enjoyed the attention of city folks who watched him eat the Walkers’ hay and oats, fed him sugar lumps and carrots. Teams grew and shrunk, one side dominated the other. There were open ice hits which everyone admired except for the man who got hit. If he had an appreciation of the game, he often admired it himself in the retelling. The fact that he was knocked unconscious, couldn’t have witnessed most of what he recounted, in no way diminished the awe in which he was held. Reputations grew over the years. Some men from the Pontiac drank on the stories for lifetimes, for free. Others, like Lyle Stiles, didn’t drink, went into denial. As the game moved down the river, teams and individuals came and went. Just past Thurso, Cy McBunn joined the game. He was accompanied by a bunch from Alfred. They wore striped uniforms, didn’t play long, disappeared. Cy’s specialty was skating backwards. He could skate rings around most of his opponents when they were skating forward. But his inability to skate forward was a major contributor to his lack of scoring prowess. He didn’t make it to the opposition net very often, skating backwards. Cy had a tendency to blow up, frustrated, not being able to score. He’d inevitably take a good, solid hit in the back, go sprawling toward his own goal. His outbursts took the form of powerful slapshots in front of him. Goalies hated playing for Cy’s team. He scored too much on his own goalie. The snow blew, the wind howled. The game moved downriver. They said Gros Pierre La Barge was from around Montebello. He showed up one snowy night when Ned got constipated and stopped producing horse balls. We’d lost the real pucks upriver. Gros Pierre felt like fighting since the game was grinding to a halt. Most men on both sides were sitting in snowbanks, resting, passing a jug. Gros Pierre swung his stick viciously at anyone who looked English. He terrorized teams too tired to fight. Someone directed him at the Pontiac boys. We were forced to wake the McGraws. They were passed out on the back of the Walkers’ sled, surrounded by restless men waiting for Ned to have a movement. Gros Pierre roared in the background while he chased another “maudit Anglais” around the river. The McGraws and Gros Pierre met at centre ice. They were still fighting when they disappeared the wrong way, upriver. It seemed safer for all concerned to let them go. We heard, years later, that someone saw the three of them drinking quarts in the Wolf Lake bar. We’ll never know. There was what only could be described as an epiphany, at L’Orignal. In the brawling and drinking of the hockey game, a native of the town saw Gerald. He was struck dumb by the sight of the moose munching hay from the Walkers’ sled. The French speakers told us that they were glad he was struck dumb, the man talked too much, anyway. The word “l’orignal”, in French, meant “moose”, in English. They had named a whole town after the beast. There seemed to be a much deeper meaning for the native of the town. He jumped onto Gerald’s back, headed east, toward the St Lawrence. The look in his eye told us he was going somewhere, only he could see. The French speakers told us that he’d lost his other eye fighting with the wife. The Walkers followed toward Montreal, Big Herbie on defence, Silas on the wing. Ned pretty well found his own way. He was back to producing horse balls for their games. The silent native of L’Orignal rode Gerald toward the dawn. We turned back upriver. It had been an enjoyable week, but there was still ice fishing left to do this season. The hockey fever had diminished. It was no mean task to skate upriver with the winds against us. It’s a good source of talk on windy nights. Slumbering by the woodstove in the fishing shack, a quart near to hand. It’s a fine memory to ponder, that hockey game.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Hitching to London

I was leaving Matala with Anne and Thomas, the dedicated communist German from Ulm, who owned the French Peugot which elevated and lowered its suspension at the flick of a switch. He and I had argued about communism and democracy for a week every night in the taverna. My strongest argument, the one which he couldn't answer, was to ask him where all the communist travellers were? Why was he the only one from a communist country who was free to travel where he liked, do what he wanted? Thomas' idealism was admirable. We agreed, at least, that the rich, communist or capitalist, were still screwing the poor. He owned a car and offered me a free ride to Iraklion when he learned I was leaving. Anne was leaving Greece, too. She was from England, I was heading for London. She had seen me around Matala, decided to accompany me. I collected the drachma which were saved for me by my boss, Costa, the young, local godfather in Matala. He gave me an allowance each week, kept back a portion of my pay. I worked on various construction jobs he had, was hardened, tanned and strong when he paid me off. He held back a bit for himself, just to make sure everyone knew who was the boss. If he hadn't saved some of my pay for me, we both knew I would have blown it all. The ferry from Iraklion to Piraeus was boring and uneventful. Just as well. After living for six months in Matala, on the southern coast of Crete, never leaving, it was a slow emergence into the outside world. One of the most embarrassing occasions in my life occurred just then. I had the crabs. I got them in Matala and was at the stage of exterminating them which required sexual abstinence. There was to be no carnal contact, not even snuggling, in case of infection of another and a rebirth of the cursed bugs. But I was ashamed. I was too embarrassed to tell Anne. God knows what she thought. Anne had lived in Matala long enough to know that I wasn't gay. She was attractive enough, the ex girlfriend of a guy who was the grandson of Robert Graves, the poet. But I passed up perfect opportunities and situations which thrust us together. You don't get much closer together than when you hitchike together. I had recently been through hell, living in my makeshift tent in the campground, scratching at myself. I wouldn't have wished it on anyone. But I couldn't bring myself to tell her. It was bad enough telling Costas and the boys in Matala. They all took a step away from me. Costas wrinkled his nose when he asked why I didn't tell him sooner. Later, he admitted that when he got them, he separated himself from his family home and friends until he got rid of them. After a few smog filled days in Athens during which we were treated as fair game, ripped off everywhere we turned, we concluded that the air fare to Britain was too costly. There was an election on in Greece, something catastrophic was happening in Northern Europe, living in Athens, even on our skimpy budget, was too expensive. Reaching London could be done, cheaper, by hitching most of the way. Anne was fighting with her parents, proving her independence. She could easily get the required air fare home but refused to make the call, thereby signalling to her family that she was dependent upon them. I thought she was crazy. A guy seemed to meet us in Brindisi, when we landed in Italy. He appeared, smiling like a long lost brother, gave us pizza and a room for the night, ostensibly, for free. He finally demanded payment in sexual favours, from Anne, but too late. By the time he sneaked away from his wife, it was morning and we fled. On the motorway, heading north, it was easy to see why veteran travellers advised always to hitch with a woman in Europe. Even eighteen wheelers with full loads stopped for women. The first big rig which came by, skidded to a fishtailing halt, up the highway. The driver didn't care about the truck, the load or the other high speed traffic. We had travelled most of the day when he caught me dozing, told me to climb into the bed behind us. Everything looked fine. I gratefully passed out in the bunk after Anne and I oohed and ahhed over the pictures of the driver=s family. I wasn't expecting to be awoken by Anne=s kicks as she scrunched herself up against the passenger door and yelled at the driver. We were shocked that the friendly family man was so intent on groping Anne that he nearly ran the big Volvo off the road. We got him to pull over and let us out. The next driver who picked us up in a big rig on the freeway which runs up the spine of Italy, showed us his automatic revolver which he pulled from under his seat. We were thinking furiously, Anne prodding me in the side, our eyes glued to the weapon as he casually handled the pistol while driving. He explained, near the turnoff to Milan, that every truck driver who stopped in Milan carried a weapon to defend against hijackers. He smiled, checked out Anne=s body openly, when he let us off at a truck stop. We clambered down from the cab, grateful for the lift, glad to be getting away from his aura of danger. Anne and I finally separated in a train station in Switzerland. By this time we were barely speaking. I was irritated at her stubborness. She was frustrated at our slow progress. I didn't have anything to prove to anyone so she seemed, to me, to be involved in a frivolous game. I had given up hope that she'd call home for money enough for two flights back to England. The Greek bread had hardened in our packs. We could barely afford coffee and chocolate bars. The tension between us grew every hour. We stopped, at night, in the little station where we got some sleep on benches, warm and dry. When we awoke, we were greeted by backpackers with English accents who got along famously with Anne and onto whom she latched. She went their way and I went mine. We were glad to part. I headed for Shaffhausen, on the German border. In Matala, some of the German visitors had given me addresses and phone numbers for places to stay and jobs. If I could get into Germany, it seemed worth checking out. My resolve to reach London didn't waver, but I took a detour. It seemed logical that I should see a little of Germany while I was so close. Some of the jobs were even on Canadian bases. The Alps were truly breathtaking. Some of the rides were with young, Swiss natives who pointed out that many of the idyllic scenes in the postcard mountains contained, in reality, many poor people struggling to get by. The underside of Switzerland was obvious to them, never explained to the tourists. When I arrived, I called the number I had in Shaffhausen, knocked on the door of the address I was given, but there was no response. I stayed around for two more days but never found anyone. I couldn't find a youth hostel in Shaffhausen and I couldn't afford a room so I used the only shelter I could find, a public toilet, in a park. The place was clean. If I laid in a certain position I could manage a few hours of sleep in the glare of the all night lights. I waited, for two days and nights, walking around, looking at windows full of displays of Swiss chocolate for the tourists, living in the public restroom, eating my loaf of bread with the last of the jam I had carried from Greece. Finally, I couldn't wait any longer. I approached the border crossing between Switzerland and Germany. The early morning traffic was travelling slowly, I got a lift with a young businessman who lived in Shaffhausen, crossed the border, every day, for work, in Germany. The German border guards ordered me out of the car, searched my pack, studied my passport, ordered me to take off my cowboy boots. They studiously examined the Greek sand which fell out, presumably for drugs, counted my little wad of American bills, rejected me. I had to shoulder my pack and walk back across the border beside the line of cars going to Germany. The Swiss guards shrugged and laughed when they saw. "Germans" they said with a gesture that was meant to explain that they were as baffled as I. I consulted a map, took the rest of the day to hitch to Basel. On the side of the highway, at an intersection, I talked to a hippie looking couple who were hitching in another direction. They said they had slept in a park last night, had awoken to find food and coffee in the grass, beside their sleeping bags. Through Basel I would get to France, then England. If I had stuck to my original plan, with good luck, I'd probably be there by now. The day was ending, darkness approaching, the sky spit rain. I stood on the side of the freeway outside of Basel, watched the lights of the comfortable houses, wondered how many cities I'd stood outside of, how many hours I'd spent waiting for lifts on freeways.. Then Bernt stopped. At first, I thought he was gay, picking up a hitchiker in the dark. But his simple reason for helping me out was that once, on a motorcycle trip around Germany, someone had helped him out. He asked only that I do the same for some other stranger when the opportunity presented itself. Bernt took me home to his comfortable, modern apartment, let me use his shower and phone. I called Canada to borrow a little money. It was sent by American Express. It meant nothing in Canada, the world to me. Bernt and a friend wined and dined me. We ate and drank in the tavern which Hermann Hesse frequented while he wrote Steppenwolf. We ate Swiss rosti, drank wine, tried to remember which parts of the tavern Hesse described in his book. Perhaps from outside the window. They took off for a weekend, left me with the house after Bernt showed me his copious wine cellar. I used the Basel trams to get my money from the American express office, left Bernt a thank you note, hitched to France. From Basel I was lucky to get a lift all the way to Strasbourg where I stood on the freeway with my thumb out until a funky looking, old, walk-in van pulled over and picked me up. The driver was French, returning from Poland where he worked with Solidarity to press for democracy. The paintings and slogans which decorated the van were encouragement to Solidarity and its cause. He had installed a finely tuned, powerful engine in the old van. He laughed at the system the Poles were overthrowing as we sped toward Paris. When he let me off at the suburban metro station, I consulted my address book, called Frank. He had given me his number when he visited Matala, insisted that I call him if I ever got to Paris. I spent the next few days in Frank=s family=s expensive apartment. Frank, a handsome blond Frenchman, was an expert in judo. He had trained for most of his life, had awards, could truthfully say that it saved him once when he was attacked by a gang in a metro station. He was about to join the French army. Frank had lots of girlfriends. We sped around Paris in someone=s car, visited expensive restaurants and cafes. Of course, I started out nearly broke and that finished it. I thanked Frank and hitched to Calais. One way of avoiding the fare from Calais to Dover and London was to get a lift with a trucker. I canvassed the truckers I saw waiting for the ferry. There were dozens of big rigs heading to London. Most of the drivers wouldn't risk picking up a hitchhiker because of the travelling insurance inspectors. I was looking as desperate as I felt. Finally, a driver with an English accent told me to wait by the dock, then to get into his truck, quick, while he was loading. That way, he passed the custom inspections before picking me up. Once we rolled onto the motorway, he checked the mirrors, installed me in the cab so that I couldn't be seen from outside. He told me of his life driving regularly all over Europe. He worked shifts which allowed him some time with his young family in the north of England. He let me off with a cheery "Good luck" at the southernmost tube station in London. By the time I reached Rob=s co-op flat in Finsbury Park, I was exhausted. I had been thoroughly shaken out of the dream I had lived beneath the Matala moon. We sat around his kitchen, drinking tea, reading newspapers, one drizzly morning. That was when I found the article on the shortage of rig workers in Scotland.