Saturday, August 19, 2017

Epiphany in Amsterdam

I was in Amsterdam because if you work on a rig in Dutch waters for an agency not based in Holland, you don’t pay any taxes. It worked out ok for me because it meant I could do a roustabout job for the same wages as for roughnecking in the UK. Roustabouting is easier than roughnecking. I got a job through the agency, caught a flight to Amsterdam, was at the heliport at the right time. I got to the rig, worked there a few trips before my knee went. It was something I just knew. Sometimes you get pains in your legs during twelve hour shifts on steel decks. Sometimes you get them and accept them as part of the job. But this was different. This one wouldn’t go away. I got through the shift, but when I woke up for the next one, my knee had swollen up to twice its normal size. It looked like a bag of fluid. I went to the medic, confirmed that it was a real injury, made arrangements to catch the next flight off. I said goodbye to the boys, was helicoptered on a regular flight to Amsterdam. I saw the skaters on the canals from the chopper window. Ironic when you come from Ottawa and the mother of all skating canals and they haven’t had a cold enough winter in Amsterdam for years to enable skating on their canals. And I couldn’t skate because of my knee. There had been enough cold, windswept shifts, big pieces of steel swinging my way on that job. It was time for a break. What better place to do it than in Amsterdam, on an oil company’s tab? I got in touch with the proper doctor who was a chiropractor and physiotherapist. I had to go to him once a week, then to an orthopaedic surgeon. I got a room on Huiderkoperstraat near Rembrandtplein. There was a sink, enough room for a bed and a chair. It was fine. I lived in that closet for months, drank large amounts of Courvoisier and beer. The smoke was legal. I bought an electric guitar, a small amp, some earphones. I blew up the cheap earphones the same day. It was a lonely time of freedom. I could lay in bed with my radio and guitar, read all the second hand books I wanted. I could make the rounds of the drinking bars or the stoner cafes or just wander around streets which were busy before North America was invaded by white men. I only had to show up at the doctor’s, once a week. I bandaged my knee in an elastic to walk around. The red light district got old very fast. There were some bars there that stayed open around the clock, places with good, cheap, live music, but the streets themselves were depressing. It all made sense, having the prostitution and soft drugs legalized, but it was commodifying some things which were sacred, in a way. The authorities could keep an eye on it, control it a little. It was so sensible that it was impossible to imagine the whole system moved to Ontario. The red light district was a nice place to visit when there was a special band or special dope or to play pool at the end of a drunk. There were so many blonde girls driving bicycles around Amsterdam that it was difficult to get enthusiastic about walking along canals after dark, seeing the groups of drunken men shopping in the windows. Some of the girls even had a rear view mirror reflecting their images out to the street when their windows faced the wrong way. I spent many hours, many days on that bed in that room near Rembrandsplein. The BBC World Service at night reminded me of England and Scotland. I thought of my old friends, wondered where they were. I thought of my recent months in Crete. There was an old theatre where I saw an African band. At the bar, a government approved house dealer worked out of a window on the second floor instead of coming around to tables. You could stand in the balcony, look down on the stage, drink beer and roll joints. The African guy had fifteen people in the band, not counting the chorus line of white girls. He, himself, played a big, gourd stringed instrument. He rocked, played the blues. I saw Eric Burdon there. He admitted to the audience that Amsterdam “freaked him out”. He yelled at a guy who was wired, climbing his speaker columns, “Hey man, do I show up on your work site and take bread out of your mouth?” The crowd was behind him, his band cooked, a good bass player. With a permanent address, I was able to get some mail from home. In my little room on Huiderkoppestraat, I received the news of my uncle Earl’s death. He was “the sheriff” to us as kids, retired to Sand Bay from Northern Electric in Montreal. He was the last of the Wheeler boys, the four brothers. Now, he was gone. In a few months, my leg was better, the doctors couldn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t go back to work. I played my guitar, drank, smoked and listened to BBC World Service. One night, I was drawn into a bar by the music. It turned out to be Salsa, but at that time, I had no idea what it was. I knew it had some Caribbean influences, but the centre of it seemed to be Spanish. It was an occasion which all the expats from the Caribbean celebrated. I drank my beer, stood at the bar, watched the band. A black guy, older, danced in the crowd near the band. He was surrounded by beautiful women, Dutch and otherwise, all night. In the men’s room I asked him what it was he was doing on the dance floor. “It’s Salsa, man. I’m not from there, but I lived in Cuba for years. I love it, man” It was a good enough explanation for me. He knew what I meant. I remembered the way he shook so freely, like a matador, took it all so seriously and enjoyed it. Above the sink in my room was a mirror. I shared the toilet and shower with some other people on that floor, took my clothes with me to wash in the shower. I stared into the mirror for a day before I decided to shave off my moustache. After that, I looked at myself without a moustache many times. I felt female when I saw the white slash of flesh above my mouth which had been covered for years. I felt naked. It was time to go back to the rig. I owed the doctors, I owed some rent on my room and I owed Fritz, a Dutchman who lived in England, a mechanic on the rig. I packed my bag, stowed my guitar and amp in my room, took a bus to Schipol Airport. The chopper was leaving for the rig in another hour. I watched people heading for their destinations in the sunny, cold morning. Holiday vacations, business trips, young, old, they were all going somewhere. I sat in a cafe in the main terminal, ate a Danish, drank coffee. There was no way I was going back to the rig. I changed that to include the North Sea on the bus back into Amsterdam. Amsterdam was even better in the next few days. I could only afford a ticket to London so I spent what I had left over in Amsterdam. I bought a Gibson in a second hand music store for the price of my amp and guitar, squandered what little money I had left. London was in the near future but my time in Europe was up. I knew I was going home.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Open Letter to a Nephew

Dear Nephew, Unaccustomed as I am to giving advice to anybody these days, I must do this: lay down some guidelines for the younger generation. It feels like an inescapable weight on one’s shoulders, a duty and obligation. Whoever said that youth was wasted on the young must have known about the principles. The three principles which I will list and attempt to elucidate. These principles will ensure survival and success in today’s and tomorrow’s world. From a lifetime of observation and other sources, I have gathered this wisdom and will now impart it to you, my nephew and all who know you. Even those who don’t. 1 Borrow as much as possible from family and friends. They’re usually the last ones who’ll turn on you, giving you the benefit of the doubt, holding off their fury because you’re related or know someone who knows someone. An unfortunate corollary to this type of activity is the necessity for a packed bag and alternate identities, with pictures, if possible. In case of partners’ unfounded accusations of overspending or, God forbid, fraud. It’s getting harder to manage in these days of everybody killing each other for various reasons, but it was always thus. The killing was just cruder. There is always a way. Always a means of obtaining a false identity. Of course, families and friends should also be involved with you in as many business ventures as possible. This stimulates, among other things, their careful observance of your health and well being. Once you have wormed your way in, ingratiated yourself, made yourself indispensable to them, with the least amount of work, you are an asset, a part of the company. The corollary can also come in handy in these enterprises, if things don’t go well. When one shakes off the impetuous dreams of youth for a moment, one can clearly see upon which side one’s bread is buttered. Business relationships with family and friends should be encouraged and manipulated with care. 2 Don’t fall for that security versus creativity stuff. Go for the security, of course. You can look like you don’t care, act like it, say it, especially when women think you’re romantic because of it, but nobody wants to starve, so, keep a back door, a way out. You won’t have time for shame when you’ve bailed out on the co-op and you’re trying to survive. Accumulate as many toys as possible. Gather all and sundry and lock them up. Collect things, the more valuable, the better. Never too many of the valuable ones. There’ll always be a place to put them. The creative urge is sneaky and devious. It is more seductive than the security side, but you don’t want to grow old without being surrounded by as much security as possible. The creativity side may look attractive when you’re young. All that freedom etc., but the odds against anyone producing security out of creativity are huge. It is a foolish longshot, not worthy of a man who is serious about security. Let the starving artists drink beer in their roach infested garrets after you’ve accumulated their creations. Exceptions are made for long legged beauties in black tights. Temporary cohabitation is permissible there. 3Honesty is not always the best policy. In most cases it’s downright foolish. All of the great wealth has been accumulated by dishonesty of one sort or another. Things change. Perceptions of certain activities change. Cunning, guile and deviousness have their place in the ready arsenal of a young man trying to make his way in this world. Lying hypocrites are survivors. Politicians in any age are shining examples. Machiavelli’s wisdom is always good bedtime reading. There can be few more refreshing pleasures, when one wakes up in the morning, than a good bullying session. A suitably inferior person can be fooled into thinking they must take the abuse which you hurl their way, thus proving that dishonesty is most often triumphant and replacing the need for a brisk walk to start one’s day. I’ve imparted some hard truths here. I wouldn’t have bothered except that you’re my sister’s kid and my own children haven’t spoken to me for twenty years. The divorce was between their mother and me, none of their business. After all, one must consider one’s office staff. (A specific tip here: refuse point blank, in no uncertain terms, any job offered you without a suitable office staff. Secretaries and receptionists should be young, attractive, ambitious and immoral. Attention to these details will ensure an enjoyable workplace when one has to attend) The males of our clan always passed down the three principles before they died from the effects of their short, brutal lives. I know what kind of a family you must survive in and what kind of world you face, so I feel compelled to tell you, though it’s bad news: they get the last laugh. Women in this family, in general, outlive men. After all the fussing is over, at the end, you die and they keep going. It doesn’t seem fair, but it was always thus. There are many years to come before you’ll have to worry about it. In the meantime, think of your old uncle and remember, cannibalism isn’t a notion which should be lightly dismissed on long flights. Regards, Uncle Steve

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The North Cormorant

It was the fall when I first flew out to the North Cormorant. It was one of those flights which you caught in Aberdeen, took a fixed wing to the Shetlands, did the rest of it by helicopter. The platform was halfway between Norway and the Shetland Islands in the North Sea. I had no idea that I would spend six of my next twelve months there. There weren’t many who survived falling into the North Sea. There was one on the opposite shift from us. He was a roustabout named Neil from Barra, an ex fisherman. The circling survival ship got him, two miles from the rig, in a gale, at night. You might say he was very lucky. He was supposed to be dead after ten minutes from hypothermia, but when they picked him up after twenty minutes, all he said was, “Gee, thought I was a goner”. The companies screwed Neil around for years after that. I used to see him in the Aberdeen pubs. He hit his leg on the way down that night, wasn’t fit to work. He had been walking along, hit a spot where someone had left the grilling off the deck. The companies didn’t want to pay for his time off. There were stories that some companies had tried to charge guys for their issued rig wear when they were in a chopper crash at Sumburgh, in the Shetlands. Graham was a roustabout on my shift. The roustabouts could work their way up to the drill floor to work as a roughneck or they could work their way up to boss of the roustabouts on the deck. Some got their crane operator papers. They were guaranteed jobs as bosses of the roustabout crews. Graham wanted to work as a roughneck on the drill floor. He came up from the deck, relieved all the roughnecks to get the experience. He took the taunts, jokes and insults on the drill floor until his bafflement subsided. He learned the names of the tools and the procedures we used. He was a young guy who lived in Oban. We became friends, planned the next trip for a visit to the west coast. We piled into a borrowed Volkswagen bug, drove to Oban. Oban was a tourist centre in the nineteenth century for the English and rich Scottish. It still welcomed tourists and was the home of a fishing fleet which specialized in shrimp. Graham’s friends were shrimp fishermen who arrived onshore soon after we landed there. We drank with them for days. They were doing a more dangerous job than we were. They went out in the treacherous waters, for ten days at a time, in small boats, with no safety. They made good money, but they were thankful to return in one piece. Chingy, Graham’s best friend, was up on charges of assault. One night, in Ullapool, the Russian fleet sat offshore. Chingy heard that one of the local girls had been attacked by a Russian trawler man. After enough drinks in the bar, Chingy found a Russian, kicked his eye out. It was more of a local tradition than an international incident. Chingy would be prosecuted some time in the future. He said he could handle jail time. The fishermen gave me a running commentary on the females as we sat in one of the bars on the local circuit. They pointed out the ones they had “rode”. Graham’s phone calls were taken at the Oban Hotel. His own flat was bought and paid for by money he made poaching from a fish farm. He said his ancestors had been hunted by the English and often dodged “mantraps”. I had no idea what he was talking about until I read the books Brodie lent me. Brodie was big Bob. He was, like Graham, a Highlander. He had a mechanical engineering degree, but came to learn the hard way. He was earmarked by the drilling company to follow the usual sequence of roughneck, derrick hand, assistant driller and driller. From there he could become a toolpusher and a company man. At that level, the money and perks were very good. It was a long, hard road, but he wanted to do it honestly. The problem in the oil patch is that a university education only equips a person with the theoretical side of drilling. The old veterans with little education and a lot of experience were being replaced. Their wisdom was being lost. Brodie and I pulled slips, threw tongs, took our turns riding up and down on the riding belt in all kinds of weather. He lent me The Highland Clearances and Culloden by John Prebble upon hearing that my father’s mother was a Ross. I found out, talking on the drill floor or reading the books, that the Scottish suffered as much as the Irish in the nineteenth century. I learned that a man trap was exactly that, a trap for a man. They were a kind of leg hold trap designed by the English and rich Scottish landlords to kill or cripple poachers like Graham’s ancestors. Brodie took a trip, by train, across Canada in the middle of our time on the North Cormorant. He visited my mother in Ottawa, stayed at the youth hostel which used to be the jail. All he had to say to me, when I saw him again, was that I was a “bad bastard” My mom figured I went wrong right after I started to play rugby. Davey was the derrick man I shared a bathroom with. He lived on the island of Mull, tied his own lobster traps. He said his kids used to call him “the lodger” because they saw so little of him. His wife ran a B&B in their house. Construction workers, guys from way across the rig, nothing to do with us, used to show up at the cabin just to see Davey’s forearms. At first, to me, he looked like Popeye. His forearms were extra well developed. When it was my turn to “go up the stick”, Davey was my teacher. I had done a little in Alberta. I was scared up there, ninety feet above the steel floor. Davey came out on the monkey board to help me as I struggled to haul in the ninety foot collars and lengths of drill pipe. I had the security of the thick, leather belt, tied to the derrick by four ropes, the belly buster: he had nothing. My leg trembled uncontrollably when I waited for the block, dog bones and elevators to rise to my level. I was concerned for Davey’s safety because he was always laughing so hard. He would do a Groucho Marx imitation of me in the smoke room later, illustrating to the boys how I looked handling pipe on the monkey board. His rear end stuck out, he put a hand like Groucho’s out, flicking ash off a cigar. Davey’s other duties consisted of keeping the pumps running and the drilling mud to a certain viscosity. He, and no one above him, ever missed the chance to tell you how great it was not to have to put up with the abuse which the roughnecks did. They crowed and preened about it until the guy above them rubbed their noses in it. Davey was Bob, the rig electrician’s, brother in law. They would see me covered in diesel based drill mud or soaked from the weather or paint. Bob would say, “Stevie yer a midden”. He and Davey would laugh as Davey did his silent Groucho impression for Bob. Alan was the assistant driller, from Dundee. He was everything you wouldn’t expect in a rig worker. He was short, had a pot belly and a partially bald head. He would tell me I had no manners when I looked at the paper over his shoulder in the change room before the shift started, crack the filthiest joke, in the same breath. He was a little crazy. You came to see, after a while, that he was given a wide berth by his bosses on the rig. Alan had the easiest job on the drill crew. He bossed everyone around, except the driller and the toolpusher. He did little, himself. He was at the point where his knowledge became more important than his physical effort. He loved it. Our crew sometimes stopped work because we were laughing so hard at the antics Alan got up to on the drill floor. He could imitate Rick, a Canadian toolpusher who relieved sometimes, in such a hilarious parody of confusion, that everyone would be doubled over laughing. When there was slow drilling or some other delay, Alan wandered around talking to everyone. The motto on the North Sea rigs is, “If it moves, grease it, if it don’t, paint it”, so Alan often found the roughnecks scrubbing, painting or greasing. He would give a few unnecessary orders, just hang around. He could tell you about the gangs of Dundee settling their differences with shotguns and then sing the lyrics of every one of Paul Macartney’s songs. Alan threw a couple of the bigger roughnecks around the change room when they challenged his authority. Alan was the only guy on the crew who didn’t take the time to call or visit me in the Aberdeen Hospital. I almost lost my eye, scrubbing down the drill floor walls, had to be medivacced to Aberdeen. The Kiwis, whose couch I was using at the time, snuck a couple of pints into my room. Most of the North Cormorant crew visited. Alan, I was told, shook his head, “I never go” It wasn’t because we weren’t friends. On one of the visits by the Kiwis, we asked a nurse what all the kids were doing outside the window. She explained that, for some reason, psylopscybin mushrooms grew in great profusion on the lawns.“We ‘re always chasing them away” she said. Ronnie was the boss of the roustabout crew. He was from the old part of Aberdeen. He could translate for Bill from Buckie, up the coast. The man sounded like he had a mouthful of marbles, when he spoke. It took me the whole trip, when I returned, to figure out what he meant when he asked, “How’s yer een, Stevie?” I later found that “een” meant eyes. He was asking about my eyes. Ronnie worked on deck directing the cranes, foreman of the roustabout crew. He began relieving the roughnecks, eventually worked his way up the derrick. We met when he took me up to the blocks on a riding belt, him on the air tugger which controls it. I had still not gotten used to the damn riding belts. There was no such thing in Alberta. Roughnecks weren’t expected to go up every time a derrick man threw a pipe across the derrick. In the North Sea it was standard practice. Ronnie was just getting used to the drill floor. Whether it was because he had a plan with Alan and Chris, the driller, or because he wasn’t used to it, he gave a fast jerk on the air tugger handle, sent me thirty feet upward by the belt. I wore the belt around my waist, under my rump. It was attached to a quarter inch cable which ran through a shiv at the top of the hundred and twenty foot derrick, back to the drum. The worst thing you can do in a riding belt, is to hang onto anything. It still keeps going up. Nothing slows its progress. You turn upside down, with your hands grasping something, while your bottom half rises above you. Ronnie caught me by surprise. I stood adjusting the belt and the grease gun. I was ascending to grease the blocks. I lost my hard hat, panicked when I shot up in the air. Ronnie mouthed an apology as he lowered me to get my hat. Later, he said he hoped we weren’t going to have words over the incident. I looked at his big arms and open smile, laughed it off. Chris was the driller from Newcastle Upon Tyne who was often bent over the brake handle, helpless with laughter at the jokes on the drill floor. On a trip onshore, a dentist told him he was getting “a little long in the tooth” when he looked at his receding gums. Chris tried to cut down on the snuff and chewing tobacco after that, but we were all addicted to it, he never quit. Chris had worked his way up the ladder. He could do any of our jobs, if he had to. He wasn’t as cruel as other drillers and toolpushers. They often popped the pipe, full of mud, on the roughnecks or made green hands crawl into filthy spots to clean, during down time. In Alberta, there are certifiable sadists running brakes, working as drillers. There are (unshared) bottles of whiskey awarded to drillers whose crews make hole the fastest. To these drillers, men are expendable. The last I heard of Chris was in a pub. Somebody said that he went home unexpectedly, caught his girlfriend in bed with his best friend. The guys on the North Cormorant never saw him again. They tried Chinook flights from Aberdeen to the North Cormorant and the surrounding rigs, but the helicopters were too big, the headwinds too strong. The smaller, one bladed choppers, which they went back to, were not staffed by the smiling British Airlines hostesses which the Chinooks had. They were less safe and comfortable, but faster. In a wet phone booth in London with a Scottish girl and tickets to Paris, I made the phone call which ended my year on the North Cormorant.