Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Farnsworth's First Law of Life, Leadership and Roughnecks


Everyone you meet on the road of life has something to teach you; slow down and listen.
The most useful lesson those roughnecks taught me — a once-in-a-lifetime nugget from the most unlikely of sources — came on a blistering August day when I first experienced “pulling a wet string.
* * *
I’m still not sure how I survived the summer of ‘74 on an oil rig in western Colorado. The work was back-breaking and conditions were dirty and dangerous. But it paid well and I needed the money for college, so I stuck it out.
I was the odd man out in our four-man crew. I was an honors student headed to law school who went to church every week and didn’t smoke, drink, or chew. The others in that crew, let’s just say, were none of the above.
On the rig, no one had a name, only a nickname, a nom de guerre. At 22, I was the “Kid.” If I had stuck around a little longer I might have earned a more substantial moniker, but everyone knew I was just summer help.
“The Driller” or “Drill” was in charge of the crew. He wasn’t much older than I but had been working on rigs since he was 14, and he was a crackerjack rig operator. He worked hard and drank hard. On Monday mornings he liked to sing a ragged rendition of James Brown’s “I Feel Good, Like I Knew That I Would.” It was his way of convincing himself that his blood-shot eyes and hangover weren’t all that bad. His goal was to become a “tool pusher,” the guy who got to drive a company truck from rig to rig and bark orders to rig crews like ours.
“Grody” (named for his thick, dirty mustache that seemed to catch a piece of everything he ate or drank) was the other deck hand besides me. He was the old man of the crew, having been around the “oil patch” for nearly 20 years. He was quietly comfortable on the deck operating the tongs and the slips, but had no ambition to be in charge of the crew. He spent most of his weekly paychecks on weekend binges with his girlfriend Teresa.
“Red” (named for his bright orange hair and ruddy complexion) was the one-eyed derrick hand who danced along a narrow perch 50 feet in the air, catching the tongs and the 50-foot stands of tubing as they came up from the well and leaning them back in the derrick. He was a practical joker. He loved spitting Red Man chewing tobacco on Grody and me from above. Grody would swear at him and threaten all forms of obscene bodily harm, but Red would just laugh because he knew Grody was afraid of heights and couldn’t come after him.
I learned some interesting lessons from that colorful crew that summer. One of the most lasting was on the day we “pulled a wet string.”
Normally when you pull the string of pipe from a well (in this case about 12,000 feet of 2 5/8 inch tubing), the pump at the bottom has been unseated and all the oil inside the tubing has run back into the bottom of the well. Sometimes, however, the pump gets stuck and the oil can’t run out, so the tubing is completely full of oil.
That’s what they call “a wet string.
Pulling a wet string is one of the worst things that can happen on a production rig like ours. As the tubing full of oil is pulled from the well and the first 50-foot section is unscrewed at the derrick floor, several gallons of oil from that part of the pipe spray out on the deck hands and the driller. Then another 50-foot section is pulled up and unscrewed and you’re showered again.
By the third or fourth time, your clothes are saturated and oil is dripping from your hair and off your hardhat and into your eyes. Your eyes are stinging and you’d like to wipe them but your gloves are full of oil too. It’s inside your steel-toed boots and your underwear. Everything you have on is ruined and will need to be burned at the end of the day.
The deck and all the tools are slick and oily. Your brain is screaming to hurry up and get this over with, but you have to take it easy so no one gets hurt. It’s like a slow motion dream — the kind in which you’re trying to flee but you’re running through Jell-O.
And then you realize there are still 11,800 feet of wet string to go. That means 236 more oil showers, and it’s not even 9 o’clock yet. Without a doubt today will be one of the nastiest, most wretched days of your life.
* * *
Around noon we stopped for lunch and were squatting in the shade eating our sandwiches with oily fingers. No one felt much like talking. Finally Driller broke the miserable silence.
“Pretty tough day, huh Kid?” he asked.
“The worst,” I snorted. “If I had known this was going to happen, I would have quit yesterday.”
Red chimed in sarcastically. “Hey, don’t forget the extra fifty bucks wet string pay.”
“We get an extra fifty bucks?” I queried.
“Yeah," Red explained. “They say it’s to buy new clothes, but it’s really just to keep the whole crew from twisting off.” (That’s oil patch lingo for walking off the job en masse.)
“Aw, this ain’t nothin’,” added Grody. “You should try doin’ this in the middle of the winter. Happened to me about three Januarys ago over near Steamboat.”
“This is so disgusting. How do you stand doing this year after year? Why don’t you get another job, do something different?” I asked.
Driller scrunched up his face and almost rolled his eyes. “That’s what you ain’t learned yet, Kid. It don’t matter what you do, every job’s gonna have its share of wet string days.
“Every now and again, even if you’re some hot-shot attorney in a three-piece suite at a fancy law firm in downtown Denver, even then, _____ happens. It don’t do no good to try and run from it. You just gotta learn to make the best of it.”
“He’s right,” Grody nodded. “Every job’s gonna have its share of wet string days. Take the good with the bad and deal with it.”
* * *
“Wet String Days.”
Their words still ring in my ears. I can’t say that I appreciated their wisdom that day, but it did stick with me.
Over the years I’ve found it to be true. Even the best of jobs, even the best of lives, have their share of wet string days, days when the wheels come off and everything falls apart.
“Wet String Days.”
I’ve discovered that it helps to have a name for those kinds of situations. When something’s labeled, it’s easier to recognize it, talk about it, and find a place for it.
I’ve learned that life is not about avoiding wet string days, because you can’t. Life is about learning to handle them when they happen and not letting them sour you for the majority of days when the pump doesn’t get stuck in the tubing and the pipes aren’t full of oil and you don’t have to burn all your clothes at the end of the shift.
It’s about finding joy in the journey. It’s about learning life’s amazing lessons from the interesting people you meet along the way.
Bless those roughnecks and the lessons they taught me. I wonder where they are today?

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