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.

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