Working The Beast

Out here we call it The Patch. The Oil Patch that is. I call it The Beast. The men and women who work the beast do so knowing that at any given moment they could be the next one devoured. There are a multitude of ways the beast can get you. It doesn't really matter how it gets you. Or even why. What matters is you are usually dead or severely hurt when the beast takes a sacrifice.

When the price of oil plunges we stay with the beast. We stroke him and pet him and do all we can to help both him and us survive. We are eternal optimists. We believe that things will get better. When the great beast that is the patch lays quite and dormant we stay. We don't leave and seek our fortunes  elsewhere. We do what we have to, and hang in there till things get better.

And when things do pick up and the beast rears his great head and howls, we howl with him. The men ride the great beast and dare him to take life or limb. We spend that money we are making and we enjoy life to the fullest. We do so knowing that in the blink of an eye the beast can turn on you and take everything. Our humor is dark and our language often foul. We are hard working, hard playing men and women. The beast has tendency to make us that way.

People say those of us in the patch are a cynical lot. I agree. We are. But perhaps that is because we see lives lost for a gallon of gasoline that everybody bitches about the price of. So next time you pump that gallon of gas, or open that jar of petroleum jelly, think about the real cost of it. But whatever you do, don't bitch about the price of it to me. I have buried some friends so you can have it.

There is an old adage in the oil field that you can tell how long a person's been working the patch by the number of fingers he has left. My husband is one of the few people I know who has worked the beast as long as he has, twenty years, and not lost a finger. My father was another. But he had scars on his back from oil well fires.

We women often sit home late at night hoping that if that phone rings, it is our husband telling us he is going to be home soon. What we dread most on those nights is answering the phone and having our husband's boss tell us to meet them at the hospital. I was eight and a half months pregnant with our son the first time that happened. I have had it happen twice in these twenty years of marriage. I hope and pray I never have to experience it a third time.

There are no unions here. And we don't want any. We don't go on strike when the pay is bad. Hell, bad pay is part of life in the patch. We ride that beast and hope for a better paying job to come along before we get killed. And we do so without griping to some damn union. A strike out means either a baseball not hitting a bat, or oil gushing from a newly drilled well. We don't intend for it to ever mean anything else. Call us stupid if you like, but that is the way we feel.

The hours are long. The pay varies from poor to plentiful. You can be fired for any, or no reason, because Texas has no right to work law. And though it is technically illegal for a company to black ball an ex employee they can and do so anyway. Your boss can pat on the back one day, and fire you without supplying any reason the next.

I know this because it has happened to my husband. The company never supplied a logical reason for firing Larry. Yet for two years he could not find a decent job because of this. Even though Larry's work record was excellent, in 18 years he had taken three days off sick and one vacation. He had never been the cause of an accident. He always went where they told him, did what they told him, and never got anyone hurt. But for two years we went through unemployment hell because when a prospective employer called the company that fired him, that company would supply no logical reason for firing Larry. Try to find work under those conditions. Especially in a field that is run wholly via the good old boy network.

By now there are those of you who may be wondering why anyone in their right mind would work under these conditions. That is a reasonable question which I will try and answer.

First of all, those of us who live and work the beast aren't in right minds to begin with. You can't be and work the beast. One has to have a certain capacity to defy logic and reason to work out here. You have to be able to believe, despite the evidence in front of you, that things are going to get better. In other words, you do have to be crazy to work out here.

Then there is the fact that you can get away with stuff here that you can't anywhere else. My father did a variety of things in his life. But he always came back to the oil field. Why? Because he was one of those independent men who liked the fact that the patch offered a way of life that didn't entail some guy looking over your shoulder all the time you were trying to do your job. He was a driller. And one of the best. Even at sixty five years of age I saw him pull down $100 a day as a troubleshooter. Those young college men would screw up the well, and they would call dad to come and unscrew it. Wells rarely do what those college books say they are suppose to.

And when dad occasionally dangled a company man over a brine pit until that man saw things dad's way, they never fired him for it. His bosses knew some of these young company men were short on brains but long on advice. For those that don't know what a brine pit is let me explain. A brine pit is a large pit which brine, (salt) water is stored. This water is used in the drilling and production of wells.

For those that are wondering why my father would do such a terrible thing, the reason is simple. He was trying to save the lives of his crew. He knew what they were proposing to do was stupid and could be dangerous. And dad always did have a low tolerance for utter stupidity. He also had a low tolerance of young college educated company men that treated him like an old fool. Yet when he died some of those same young men cried because, as they told me, though Sid might dangle you over a brine pit till you saw reason, he always bought you a drink after. And he told you things while enjoying that drink that no college could teach you. Things that could save time, and often lives.

I have seen men and women, make more money in a week, than some make in a month. But they earned every penny of it. They worked long hard hours in dangerous conditions for years to get where they could make that kind of money. They didn't work their way up some office hierarchy. They worked their way up from rig floor hands. Like all who are new to the oil field they started off as worms. Worms are what people who have no experience are called. They disregarded advice and pleas from their loved ones and kept working the beast. And at times they made, or make, damn good money at it. Many lost fingers, and were hurt in other ways, but they rode the beast anyway. Whipped him and came back for more. Some didn't make it. Those are the ones that lay buried. Sacrifices to the beast.

We also ride and work the beast because it is in our blood. You could offer these men a cushy office job with great pay, and I would bet money most of those whose blood is now part crude, would leave that job within six months. The fact is, we love the patch. It is a law unto itself.

Hell, it is a world unto itself. Most folks who are not of the patch can't even understand our language. Tell a friend who isn't in the patch your husband is a pusher and they think he is dealing drugs. He isn't though. He is a salesman. But they are called pushers out here because what they usually sell is oil field tools. Thus they are tool pushers. Or pushers for short. And some of these pushers make just as much money as the other kind. They just don't get arrested for it.

I think those of us in the patch are perhaps the last of a dying breed. Men and women who are willing to the ride the beast on its terms are getting harder to find. Now people want safe jobs, secure futures, and good working conditions. The beast offers none of this. I wonder what will happen if we die out completely and no one comes along to take our place. Who will work the beast then?

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