San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Growing into the Job

Years ago I worked for an oil company as a petroleum engineer. We were running 18 contract drilling rigs at the time, spread over a thousand square miles, and my job was collecting formation cores and running drill-stem tests to assess productivity, so I spent a deal of time on the rig floor. It’s like a war there: long periods of utter boredom while the drill pipe slowly descends through the rotary table, followed by a few hours of frenzied activity when the pipe is pulled to add a new stand, the worn bit replaced and the whole thing repeated in reverse.

During these frantic periods, the rig floor is a dangerous place to be, with a hundred tons of steel flying around in all directions as the crew dance their complicated ballet around the rotary table. It’s particularly dangerous for the petroleum engineer, as there is a natural antipathy between him and the crew. A drilling rig is an expensive piece of equipment, and so has to be kept running day and night. To encourage speed, the crew is paid an unexciting base wage but a handsome bonus based on footage made, so anyone slowing down the action by coring or testing becomes a prime target for extinction.

The operation consumes vast quantities of supplies: mud materials, water, bits, casing, cement and so on, and to keep them coming each rig has a toolpusher who shuttles between the rig site and the supply stores. While the crew work only 12-hour shifts, the toolpusher has to be always available, getting what sleep he can in his pickup.

And when there are several rigs running, there is always someone having the kind of problems you get when massive machinery is pushed to its limits, so you have a bullpusher in charge of maybe eight or nine rigs at a time. He hardly gets any sleep at all, so while the toolpusher is generally a big man, to withstand the punishing pace, the bullpusher is typically a huge fellow, like six-three and 300 pounds, no fat.

Oddly enough, my best friend at the time was Bill, a humble floor hand and on the slight side – five-eleven and 180 pounds – though his ambition was big enough: to become a bullpusher and retire with a sizeable fortune at age 40. But he knew it was company policy not to hire bullpushers under six feet and 250 pounds, as otherwise they wouldn’t last a month. So he launched himself on a course of diet and exercise designed for Olympic weightlifters and slept vertically in a sling until he acquired the proper proportions.

I have never before or since seen such dedication. Over five years he progressed through the ranks: mudman, motorman, driller, toolpusher, expanding all the time until, on the very day he reached six feet, he made bullpusher, earning enough to buy and sell petroleum engineers by the gross. And on that day he stopped speaking to me, his friend. In fact, one day as I stepped on the rig floor to conduct a test, he yelled, “Little boy, geet orf mah gahdamm rig, heeyah?”

So much for friendship.


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