Thursday, March 11, 2021

The Good Hand, Michael Patrick F. Smith


An old friend of mine recommended this book to me as I was one of the few people he knew that actually worked in Oil & Gas in Williston, North Dakota.

The book was a well written, fast read that included some memorable sentiments including the instruction, "Never put your hands anywhere you wouldn't put your dick."  Pinch hazards are everywhere, along with slips, trips and falls.  However the most dangerous thing we do is drive.  The only deadly accident, involving people I worked with, was a rollover accident driving back from location, 2 people dead, 1 person in critical condition and 1 was treated for minor injuries.

By the end of the book, I got the feeling that part of the author's adventure was to establish a context for his childhood and his life choices.  Notwithstanding his early family life, "Magic" Mike certainly conveys a level headedness which is challenged by the folks he meets in the field.

I never got an oilfield nickname that stuck.  However, I did cross paths with folks who spanned the political gamut, were on the misogynistic spectrum, and there was plenty of homoerotic humor.  It was almost like middle school boys were physically transformed to hard working men with very little maturity to show for it.  Despite of all that, I will argue that the oilfield is a balance of meritocracy and who you know.  There are plenty of folks who got ahead despite their mediocrity.  However, a good hand was not held back for race, creed or sexual orientation.  Interestingly creed and sexual orientation were not taboo subjects as there was no topic off limits.

We worked 2 week hitches (14 straight 12+ hour days) with 1 or 2 weeks off.  Over that period of time, you get to know people pretty well and will discuss religion, child rearing, relations with your significant other and anything else you could think of that I never broached in corporate America.  Your views will certainly get you teased, but not judged.  Entering the oilfield for the first time at 46 years of age with greying hair, the constant question I got was "How old are you!?"  You will get teased short/tall, fat/skinny, young/old, bald/long haired, one can continue the list ad infinitum.

Mike worked for a oilfield services company and his experience was exclusively in loading and unloading trucks during rig ups and rig downs.  I worked for an Liberty Oilfield Services.  A company that worked exclusively in Hydraulic Fracturing.  Everybody starts with a green hard hat, which essentially signals that you do not know what you are doing.  It took me nearly 8 months to "graduate" to a red hat and I was very proud to get that red hat.  Most guys would get a red hat in 3 to 6 months.

I had to be taught everything starting with how to move around location safely and how to swing a hammer without hurting myself or anybody else.  To see an expert swing a hammer during rig up rivals watching a professional ballet dancer.  It appears effortless and elegant.  All of the iron is heavy on location.  The 4 inch long iron is a 2 or 3 man lift and all of the iron is connecting by tightening wing nuts with an 8 lb short handle hammer.  The iron needs to withstand 10,000 psi on the line without leaking.

I was hired in Denver and being sent to North Dakota felt like being sent to the moon.  I was not even sure how to pack for a 2 week "business trip."  I was basically told to pack like you would to stay at a hotel.  We stayed at man camps run by Target Logistics.  As an engineer, I had access to a company truck while on hitch.  Some man camps were better than others.  The one in Stanley was incredible, the Judson Lodge in Williston sucked.  One time we were put up at the La Quinta, when we were working in near Dickinson.  There is no way I would have paid $1500 per month for a trailer space, like I heard some folks doing during the early boom days.

By the time I landed in Williston, strip clubs were banned and we never went out for beers.  In fact alcohol and guests were not allowed in the man camps.  Some guys got together, just off the property for parking lot beers, but working the long days and getting fitful sleep on a crappy mattress, does not lend itself to a lot of entertainment time.  I would hit the gym 4-5 days a week.  Usually warming up on the treadmill, doing some calisthenics and some barbell work.  I would also call my family daily, usually driving to or from location depending on whether I was working nights or days.

With room and board included and the long shifts, I did save a lot of money because I never had time to spend it.  If I saw something interesting or just wanted it, I would buy it.  But being established before starting oilfield work, I did not want for anything.  Certainly a kid with a GED and a CDL making $100K+ a year could get carried away buying a nice truck, firearms or other toys.  Most of the guys were working to support their families.

I started in April 2017 with a "five week" hitch in the DJ basin in Colorado.  The five week is essentially frac boot camp for engineers.  Everything on me hurt.  Going from 8's at a desk to 12's of physical work was brutal.  We rotated around location working in sand, chemicals, the blender, walking pumps, gel hydration and pump down.  My first hitch in the Bakken was in May 2017 and I worked 2 and 2 up there, until January 2018.  Then I transferred to back to the DJ basin and worked a 2 and 1 schedule until October 2018.  I completed a breakout project and was promoted and was on track for a career.  However, I felt like I aged 5 years over that 18 months.  I missed my family and quickly realized that I would be having a stint in the oilfield and not a career.

I was laid off after 19 years in data storage at StorageTek, Sun Microsystems and Oracle.  I struggled mentally with being a stay at home Dad, even though I had saved for a rainy day and got a huge severance package.  In 3 months, I sent out 75 applications, attended job fairs and networking events.  I had 2 interviews and 1 offer that came in just after I started training to work in the FedEx warehouse loading trucks part time.  I needed to work and I knew Liberty took a chance on me.  I came to realize later that they never took applications for engineering jobs.  Everybody else was a referral.  I got in because I came across a posting that was required by law to hire H1B workers.  I wanted to prove that I still had another rodeo in me, that I had skills and was willing to work hard and learn.

One of my biggest fears was financial insecurity and I clung to my job in tech about 5 years after I stopped enjoying it, because I was afraid of change.

I was fortunate to have a loving wife.  It is tough to meet people when you disappear for 2 weeks at a time and then have a week or 2 off.  My daughters were 8 and 10 when I started.  I could not have done it when they were younger.

To this day, I miss the hard work, camaraderie, hijinks, authority and trust in the oilfield.

The antics of night shift were always crazy with lots of chatter on the radio.  I still remember walking into the data van for my day shift and seeing the pump operator and quality control supervisor looking like death warmed over.  I guess the guys got Caroline Reaper hot peppers and dared each other to eat them.  After 12 hours, night shift came back a guy short, I guess he had to go to the emergency room.

The cold was brutal.  The coldest weather for me was -35 deg F and -50 deg F with the wind chill.  Idling trucks was the norm and the thought of having to go to the port-o-let was enough to be constantly dehydrated.  I certainly hid out in the data van that rig up.  I got out and helped carry some soft pressure hoses and quickly disappeared again.  On those cold days, the only saving grace was getting your extremities near the rig heaters that were in place just to keep fluid freezing in the well head.

As a memoir, Mike certainly captured the flavor of a boom town.  During my first day of training, one of the old hands warned everybody to bank their money.  Oilfield is a cyclic business.  Booms are followed by busts followed by booms followed by busts.

There were a lot of ex-military in the oilfields.  Guys who were tough and wanted a sense of purpose.  They found one in American Oil on American Soil.

I will also say, that if you can show up and be even remotely teachable, there is a place for you in the oilfield.  I remember overhearing an exchange where the company man explained to a driver where he wanted the dumpster.  After 10 minutes of using every conceivable compass bearing, relative equipment, road and feature on location, they storm out and the company man points exactly where to place the dumpster.  On returning, he loudly proclaimed, that he could always get an oilfield job, because if that dumb fuck can get a job, anybody can.

The oilfield does police its own.  The majority of men are fiercely conservative and while they may talk trash, they would not tolerate violence towards women or children.  You would get your ass kicked and not be welcome back.  If you show up to work hungover, you may get a pass and sleep it off in a truck.  If it happens once too many times, you will get run off.  It is not hard to merciless pick on somebody until they are near suicidal.  Any disputes that cannot be diplomatically resolved could still be taken out behind the water tanks.

Some recommended reading included:

The Moral Case For Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein - very enlightening, well written
The Rational Optimist, Bill Ridley - interesting, especially in changing times
Don't Tell Mom I Work on the Rigs:  She Thinks I'm a Piano Player in a Whorehouse, Paul Carter - poorly written, but fun read

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