My Oil Rig Summer – Part 1
[Note: This is a personal story about an adventure I had overseas much like the first one I described. Do know that there aren’t any lessons in this story about dealing with the opposite sex.]
The Middle East geopolitics in the start of 1982 were bloody. The Iran-Iraq war was churning along in its deadly glory and Israel was set to invade Lebanon in hopes of vanquishing the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The early ’80s were quite chaotic. The hostage crisis in Iran had just ended. The Falklands War was there in 1982.
I certainly paid attention to the news when it was available. There was no cable TV in my college freshman dorm room. We didn’t even have a TV. My roommate and I had a land line phone in our room. This was the zenith of communications technology for college students at the time. The very concept of wireless communications was not even a consideration.
Before entering freshman year at Clark University, I had taken a year off after graduating highschool. It was a year full of adventure. My stay in Western Australia I’ve already written about.
There were also other interesting experiences including a stint as a ski bum in Summit County, Colorado; a motorcycle trip from Boston up towards the Canadian Arctic (the motorcycle was stolen in British Columbia); even a job in a state mental hospital. To my parents’ credit, they encouraged – to a point – these adventures. “Keep your options open” my mother always told me and my brother. I took that to heart.
Freshman year in college was fairly typical for me, an upper middle class young man from suburban Boston. I went to parties. I clumsily seduced a few college girls. I skipped a lot of classes. It was a very fun time for all us kids. There were friends and acquaintances I could have fun with. For me, the academics were easy to handle.
It’s time to introduce Bill. He and his roommate lived a few doors down from me and my roommate. Bill was an alright guy, just eccentric. One of his hobbies was to wake at the crack of dawn to hunt squirrels with his high-powered air pistol. Of course he dressed in camouflage. Bill was like me, a product of a snooty private high school. Unlike me, he came from serious Manhattan wealth as I was to eventually learn.
Bill was friendly with everyone in that part of the dormitory. He had no very close friends as did the rest of us freshmen and sophomores. He and I went drinking a couple of times but he was guarded in a happy kind of way. He laughed and smiled and came across as gregarious. Yet he volunteered nothing about his personal or family life.
The climate of central Massachusetts is cold and unfriendly in mid-winter. The sun sets early and the frigid temperatures are unyielding. Such a climate drives everyone indoors on weekends unless there are outdoor winter sports to be involved in. It was February of 1993 and I was sitting at my dorm room desk doing some reading. My roommate was out. I heard a knock on the open door. I looked up to see Bill standing in the doorway.
“Hey Andrew!” He was excited about something and got right to the point. “Do you want to work on an oil rig this summer?”
I didn’t ask any questions, just looked at him. Bill was the kind of young man who seemed happy all the time and that meant it was too easy to completely discount what he said. I rather didn’t believe him. But on the off-chance he was telling the truth… “Sure”. I had quite few adventures during my gap year between high school and college. This could be another adventure. Suddenly Bill was gone. I went back to reading, not giving his odd question another thought.
A few days later, the scene repeated itself but with a different type of question from Bill. “Do you want to work in the North Sea, northern Thailand, off the coast of Africa, or the Middle East? You don’t have to answer now. Let me know in a couple of days, I have to tell my dad.” I was still rather incredulous with all this. In my mind, believability was not part of Bill’s question. Regardless, I put some fleeting thought into it.
A couple of days later I ran into Bill in a dorm common area. My fleeting thoughts led me to request an oil rig job in the Middle East. Surprisingly, that was his desire, too. I selected that region of the world because, well, it was exotic as possible. Also, working offshore really didn’t appeal to me. Bill’s rationale for working in the Middle East become clear a couple of months later when we were sweating in the blow torch heat of the Arabian sun.
There was a bit of talk amongst my dorm mates about Bill, me, and the upcoming summer adventure, if it were actually happening. It seems that Bill had asked a number of guys to accompany him overseas to work on an oil rig. None had answered in the affirmative except for me. I had the conceit of a “seasoned” adventurer so I secretly lorded over my dorm peers. It was easy because I seriously doubted that Bill would actually come through.
In March, the adventure became real. Bill came into my room. “We have to go to Houston for paperwork and stuff in the next couple of weeks. The company is paying for it.” Oh shit, this was real. This was really happening. I had a valid passport. Bill also had some more details. The contract was to be tailored just for us two. 28 days straight working 12 hours a day, seven days off, then another 28 days. For our efforts, we were each be to be paid $5000. That’s a great deal of money for a 1982 college kid.
I don’t remember if Bill told me the ultimate destination. Perhaps we were told when we ventured to Houston to meet someone at Sedco, the oil exploration company that was hiring us for the summer. No matter, we were to fly to Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). While in Houston, we got a full house of vaccinations and some remedial reading about how an oil exploration drilling works. The book had lots of illustrations because it was clearly written for the high school crowd. I wish I still had that book.
The Sedco people told us that our tickets would be at the appropriate airports and we would get our visas when we arrived. Bill seemed oblivious to such details. I was more concerned about such arrangements. After having travelled overseas on my own the previous summer, I didn’t want to show up in the UAE without proper papers. This was a time when Dubai was definitely not a tourist destination as it is now.
Before heading to Houston, I did let the parents know my plans for the upcoming summer. While they all expressed concern, I did receive general support. At that time in my life I had four parents – mother, step-father; father, step-mother. Family life was certainly interesting for my brother and me.
Once my Freshman year ended in late May and headed back home, it was time to really get ready. In preparation for the work, I had to buy some work clothes including steel toed boots, coveralls, and a hard hat. Of course, such things were not available in hoity toity Newton, Massachusetts. I had to venture to next door Waltham, a much more working class suburb. There I found a store with all the accoutrements I needed for working on an oil rig.
I departed Boston for NYC on June 6, 1982. Things are a bit hazy from my time in Manhattan when Bill and I met up at his mother’s apartment at 135 Central Park West, a very swanky old place right across from Central Park. I think I might have spent the night there, perhaps not. The point of going to NYC was to get a flight to London. That we did. There was layover and then another flight, this time to Kuwait. I have definitely forgotten the airlines involved.
From London to Dubai with a quick stop in Kuwait, international geopolitics detoured the flight. The captain announced we couldn’t fly over israeli air space because the Israeli Defense Force had just invaded Lebanon. So, we detoured through Egyptian air space en route to our stop in Kuwait. Of course, landing in Kuwait meant being in relatively close proximity to another Middle East conflict, the Iran-Iraq war. At Kuwait, some supplies were loaded into the airplane and I got the chance to feel the desert air through the open door. The air was beyond hot, even though it was night-time. This was not a good sign for a young man from the north climes of New England.
The plane quickly took off for the short flight to Dubai. Today, the Dubai airport is a massive international affair and a major hub for flights all over that part of the world. In 1982, it was a modest, regional airport. Getting off the plane meant walking down stairs and crossing the concrete on foot before getting to customs. A slender young man wearing an Arab robe and headgear was the security guard at the entrance. He carried a small automatic rifle, a carbine actually.
Bill and I stuck close together. We were scared and awed at the same time. Still without our visas, we got in different lines to be cleared through customs. The line moved forward. We looked at each other, mild panic on our faces. The line moved forward again. We were clueless, just moving along with the rest of the passengers entering the UAE. They all seemed to have the appropriate papers to guarantee them safe entry. But Bill and I had no such papers. The oil drilling company had told us everything would be waiting for us. Perhaps, but that was on the other side of the surly looking custom officers.
The line moved forward again. We were now just one person away from the customs desk in our respective lines. I was panicking inside. I’m sure Bill was feeling the same. I didn’t expect this.
[If you liked this blog post, support my writing efforts through my Patreon, thanks!]