Wednesday Wisdom: Farnsworth's First Law of Life, Leadership, and Roughnecks
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.
I'm still not sure how I
survived the summer of 1974 on a "workover" or production oil rig
(as distinguished from a drilling 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 learned a lot from the
colorful crew I worked with. Probably 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."
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. I was definitely the odd man out in
terms of lifestyle, being the only one who didn't smoke, drink, or chew.
I'm pretty sure none of the others had ever set foot on a college campus or
imagined going to law school.
"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 he drank hard. On Monday mornings he liked to
sing a ragged, raspy 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 move up to "tool pusher" -
the guy who got to drive a company pickup from rig to rig and bark orders
at 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, but had no ambition to be in charge of
the crew. He spent most of his weekly paychecks on weekend binges with his
live-in girlfriend Teresa.
"Red" was the derrick
hand. He had bright orange hair, ruddy complexion, and only one eye. He
danced along a narrow perch 50 feet in the air, catching sections of tubing
as they were winched up from the wellhead. He liked playing practical jokes
like spitting Red Manchewing tobacco down on Grody and me from above. Grody
would swear at him and threaten all forms of obscene bodily harm, but Red
would just laugh. He knew Grody was afraid of heights and couldn't come
after him up in the derrick.
Normally when we pulled the 2¼
miles of tubing (called the "string") up out of the well, the pipes
were dry and empty because the pump at the bottom had been unseated and all
the crude oil inside had run out into the well. On rare occasions, however,
the pump would get stuck in the bottom of the string and the oil was
trapped inside. That made that 2¼-mile-long string of pipe "wet":
i.e., completely full of dark-green crude oil.
a wet string" was one of the vilest things that could
happen on a workover rig like ours. As we started pulling the tubing full
of oil up from the well and unscrewed the first 50-foot section at the
derrick floor, several gallons of crude oil sprayed all over us and the
deck. Then each time we pulled up and unscrewed another section, we were
By the third or fourth time,
our clothes were saturated and oil was dripping from our hair, off our
hardhats, and onto our faces and necks. Our eyes were stinging and we
wanted to wipe them but our gloves were heavy with oil too. Crude oil was
already oozing inside our steel-toed boots and underwear. Everything we had
on was ruined and would need to be burned at the end of the day.
The deck and all the tools were
slick and oily. Our brains were screaming to hurry up and get this over
with, but the slimy conditions forced us to move slowly and carefully so no
one would get hurt. It was like a slow-motion nightmare - trying
desperately to flee but feeling like we were running through Jell-O.
After half a dozen nasty oil
showers a terrible thought hit me: it wasn't even 9 a.m. yet, and there was
still more than 2 miles of wet string to go. That meant enduring over 200
more sprays of oil until the last sections were finally pulled from the
well. Without a doubt, I thought, this was going to be one of the nastiest,
most wretched days of my life.
Around noon we stopped for
lunch and were squatting in the shade, dripping oil and eating our
sandwiches with greasy fingers. No one felt much like talking. The Driller
finally 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
Red chimed in sarcastically.
"Hey, don't forget the extra fifty bucks wet string pay."
"Oh, really? We get an
extra fifty bucks?" I asked.
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
"Aw, this ain't
nothin'," added Grody. "You should try doin' this in the middle
of winter. Happened to me about three Januarys ago on a well over near
Steamboat. Nothin' like frozen oil dripping off your nose all day. Kinda
like oil icicles. Now THAT was a rough day."
"This is so disgusting.
How can you stand doing this year after year? Why don't you get another
job, do something different?" I queried.
Driller scrunched up his face
and almost rolled his eyes at me. "That's what you ain't figured out
yet, Kid. It don't matter what you do or how much school you've got, 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 suit at a fancy law firm
in downtown Denver, even then, s*** 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
job's gonna have its share of wet string days. Take the good with the bad
and deal with it."
* * *
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 their
words to be true. Even
the best of jobs, even the best of lives, have their share of "wet
string days," days when the motor blows up, the wheels come off, and
everything falls apart.
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 in the
grand scheme of things.
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 bottom of 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 some amazing lessons from the interesting
people you meet along the way. Bless those roughnecks and the lessons they
taught me 44 years ago this summer.