The Private Man

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Archive for the day “August 15, 2015”

My Oil Rig Summer – Part II

[It’s strongly recommended to read Part 1 of this story from my young adulthood.]

The line at customs was now officially too short for my anxiety to cool. Bill and I had no permission to enter the United Arab Emirates despite previous assurances from the oil exploration company that all would be taken care off. I glanced again at Bill. He didn’t look back.

On the other side of the line of customs stations was a fairly large group of folks, none of them dressed like Arabs. It seemed as if a collection of men in western clothes but with darker skin were all who were waiting. Then I heard a voice from that side.

“Mr. Hansen! Mr. Justin! Mr. Hansen! Mr. Justin!” [That’s not Bill’s real last name.]

It took a second for me to comprehend that it was my name being hollered from over there. It was also Bill’s name. The man shouting our names was large, shiny, and obviously from the Asian subcontinent given his accent. I looked over at Bill and he smiled broadly at me. We were saved.

“I’m Mr. Hansen” I said loudly and the large man moved deftly to hand the customs agent one of two scrolls he was holding. This was my visa, a scroll? As I moved to take my place at the custom’s desk, the young customs agent was unrolling the large scroll, over a foot wide and twice as long. The agent was reading the scroll in a position that allowed me to see it too. I couldn’t read the elaborate document because it was written in beautiful Arabic calligraphy complete with decorative script in the margins. It was art masquerading as bureaucracy.

I looked more carefully at the unfurled scroll. There, surrounded by all those fancy Arabic words was my name, written in English. This made me official. I imagined that Bill’s visa scroll was much the same. The agent asked for my passport. He wasn’t polite about it but he did speak good English. With a hard look at my passport and again at the scroll, the agent stamped my passport and then stuck on adhesive stamp.

The young man started to roll up my visa scroll. “Can I have that?” I innocently asked as I pointed to scroll. Such an amazing souvenir that would have been. The agent glared at me malevolently. “No” and then he waved me on. I didn’t dawdle and so quickly moved on, clutching my passport. I looked to my right and Bill was also moving away and toward the large man who had been calling our names.

The man motioned for us to follow him and we did. He took us to the luggage pickup where Bill and I waited briefly for our baggage. The airport wasn’t large so it was easy to make our way to the next person waiting for us at the arrivals door. Before leaving, the large man told the next man that we were Hansen and Justin. The man who met us was tall and spoke with a thick Texas accent. He reached out his arm to shake our respective hands. His one arm. His other arm was gone from above the elbow and his short sleeve shirt did nothing to hide it.

“I’m taking you boys to the Holiday Inn. Your rooms are already reserved.” I don’t remember one-armed’s name. I do remember his accent and his brusque manner. It was about 11pm local time and it was quite dark despite . The Dubai night air was extremely warm, humid, and thick. The smell of the place was utterly unfamiliar. One-arm was driving a pickup truck and the three us were all sitting along the only bench seat as we drove along well-made streets lined with palm trees.

One-arm dropped us off at the Holiday Day. “You boys be in the lobby at 7AM tomorrow so I can drive you to the rig site.” Bill and I were jet-lagged and tired. I don’t know about Bill, but I was almost too excited to sleep, almost. Once in my room, I left notice for a wake-up call and actually managed a shallow sleep for a few hours.

Though hazy after all the decades, I recall be awoken by an odd singing through a very basic public address system somewhere outside the hotel. As I was to later learn, this was the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. When the sky lightened as the sun came up, I looked out the window. This wasn’t Kansas. I saw white minarets of the local mosque. The air had an orange hue and the thin, reddish dust in the atmosphere was obvious.

I gathered up my duffel bag and headed to the lobby. There wasn’t time for breakfast. Bill arrived to meet me soon after I hit the lobby. A few minutes later, right on time, the one-armed Texan showed up to quickly collect us into the pickup truck he drove. We drove northeast, close to the coast of the Persian Gulf which was occasional visible from the highway. The landscape was not exciting but the road was smooth and new. One-eye didn’t talk much. He had nothing in common with a couple of suburban college guys from the American Northeast. I was anxious but excited and didn’t say much, just took in this completely foreign land. Bill was chattering away about nothing, perhaps to hide his own anxiety.

After about an hour on the road, we drove through the small city of Ras al-Khaimah. It was a relatively modern place with throngs of men walking the sidewalks, many walking in pairs while holding hands. Two or three miles past Ras al-Khaimah, we turned right onto a dirt road that led through a grove of date palms and some rudimentary mud brick houses where it was clear that people lived. I was to later learn that the date palm grove caretakers resided in those almost primitive homes.

As we drove up to the entrance of oil rig compound, there was no derrick in sight. The derrick tower is the iconic image of oil exploration. At the entrance to the rig compound stood a uniformed guard, armed with an obvious AK-47. I thought to myself that it’s the Middle East and such weapons would be seen on occasion. One-arm drove into the rig compound and there was the drilling derrick, lying horizontal to the ground, clearly not yet hoisted into the vertical position. We were officially on the job site.

Those first few hours I don’t remember much. I do, however, specifically remember how the rig compound was laid out. Imagine four football fields laid side by side in a roughly east-west orientation. The entrance to the rig compound was at the west end. Once inside immediately on the left were four enormous generators, each about the size of a mobile home. The exhaust noise was enormous. On the other side of the access road was a temporary office and living quarters. This is where the “toolpusher” resided and did office work.

A note about the specialized nomenclature… like in any technical field, there’s all sorts of unique words and terms. The rig’s toolpusher is the day time rig supervisor, the boss. As for the operation of an onshore oil exploration drilling rig, I’m not doing into lurid detail but here’s some excellent background information, start from the linked page and read forward.

At the center west of the compound was the derrick and platform. Just north of it was a large, rectangular artificial pond about 12 feet deep and lined with canvas. Between the pond and the rig were the mud tanks. On the South side were the living quarters, a series of pre-fab huts, one group for the Pakistani laborers, a second group for the white folks who ran things and did more technical functions. That included me and Bill, each with our own room.

Our first week on the rig was wretched. Bill and I were given no real supervision so we merely got to watch the derrick tower raised into the vertical position. I was keen to be useful; Bill, less so. The real problem was the heat. This was summer in the Middle East. I estimated the daytime temperature to be around 115 fahrenheit. As the rig was only a few miles inland from the Persian Gulf, it was also humid. There was also the challenge of the people we were intended to work with. The toolpusher was reluctant to tell us what to do. The other white folks couldn’t even fathom what we were doing there having no real oil rigging skills or even official titles.

I was pretty good with tools and my hands. I had also made a point to read the books that Sedco had given me back when Bill and I went to Houston. When I could help, no matter who it was, I tried. The Pakistani laborers were a bit perplexed but accepted my muscles and ability to turn a wrench. The rig was still being prepared for drilling so there was a lot machinery to attach with so many bolts to tighten. But still, the daytime temperature was too much for me. I had made a point to talk to the toolpusher and after a few days, he appeared to warm up to me despite me being a “college boy”.

I requested to be put on the night shift, 6PM to 6AM. It was granted and I began working at night, out of the miserable daytime heat. The night shift was still hot and humid but bearable. Bill stayed on the day shift and for the next couple of weeks we only saw each other in passing. During that two weeks, the rig actually started to drill a hole in the ground. Of course, the biggest, nastiest job before drilling commenced was installing the massive blow out prevents (BOPs). So many huge bolts to be tightened.

I made a point to learn as much as I could and assist when I could. The mud guys explained how drilling mud worked and how it prepared and pumped. I helped tote big bags of mud powder. The driller showed me about Weight on Bit (WOB) and how to manipulate the huge brake level. I even went up the derrick to watch the derrick man stack the pipe strings (three pipes screwed together) in the pipe fingers. All the while, I heard stories of Bill trying to avoid work during the day shift.

One night just over two weeks into my contract, the toolpusher took me aside just as my shift was starting.

“Your friend was transferred to another rig”.

I didn’t know how to respond. Bill was no longer on Sedco Rig 96, he was on another Sedco rig somewhere in the United Arab Emirates. I continued on with learning and working for the next few days until again the toolpusher took me aside.

“Bill went home.”

I hadn’t laid eyes on Bill in at least two weeks so his return to the U.S. wasn’t initially a big deal. I continued to work my shift as the realization slowly sank in. The guy who got me out in the burning sands of Arabia had left me behind.

Part III is already in the works. Stay tuned.

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