Tuesday, January 13, 2009

QWERTY and Dirty Jobs

Jeffie was rooting around in the old plant, which has a few eye-level gray metal file cabinets filled with manuals, catalogs, spec books, dirty comics, and three decades' worth of Car and Driver, when he found a tattered, coffee-splotched photocopy of a mid-80's article from Playboy Magazine. When I came back from lunch he had forgotten what he'd originally gone looking for and was examining it excitedly. He'd mentioned it not long ago, "I wonder what happened to that copy of that article we had about the boom?" He remembered it differently but it was still fun.

Written by then-staffer Craig Vetter, it's a single-page feature about his two months in Evanston (yes, Wyoming, although he apparently now teaches at a university in or near Evanston, Illinois, and I bet it's a daily reminder) in 1981 working on the rigs as the local oil boom began to trickle out. Vetter remarked on the class of man in the oilfield and what that type of fellow (generally convicts, generally large and unfriendly) might do to him if they found out he was only working on the rigs to get a good story. He also vaguely described the dangers on an oil rig, that some piece of equipment he couldn't even name might crash down at any moment and kill him.

He didn't give a lot of page to the oil field itself; the focus of the piece was his trip through town five years later, probably in the summer of 1986, and how he expected to find the town "used up and left for dead" and found it thriving instead, with new construction and various other improvements and a friendly and active citizenry. $18,000,000 in tax revenue pouring in from the oil field had apparently been put to good use, he mused. That's true. Evanston did well in the boom and after.

I didn't live here in the early 80's when the boom would have been on its downhill slide, but I lived 45 minutes away in Kemmerer, and I know that on our way to Salt Lake on various errands, we rarely stopped here. But what people who did live here during the boom seem to remember most is the ruthlessness, the lawlessness, as if for that almost-decade Evanston reverted to the Wild West.

When oil was discovered near here, the greedy circus arrived and derricks grew up like a forest. And then came the roughnecks. People are rumored to have been shot in alleyways and repaired hastily in the E.R. with superglue. Jeff says if your car broke down on the way to work and you managed to find a ride with someone else, you might as well not even lock the doors and be sure to take everything you valued, because by the time you came by after your shift there would be nothing left but the frame, not even the dash or door handles or headlights. Vetters mentioned the trailer park where he rented a room and the horrors he witnessed there. Men slept in vehicles or in makeshift camps on the outskirts of town by the river, and they showered at the Flying J truck stop (which might have still been the Husky) for $5. Doesn't sound like much now, but they were making $12 an hour on the rigs and that was big money. Jeffie cackles at the owner's gall, someone he knew. He worked there during high school.

Money is the thing, I suppose, so much of it changing hands and winding up in the wrong hands, black-stained hands attached to thugs, but also the odd cowboy or the odd family man like Jeffie. Local men knew the boom would eventually bust -- Wyoming runs that way, like a heart monitor, a constant pulse and drain -- so they took City jobs like Jeffie or got on with the railroad or the State Hospital, Wyoming's forbidding brick mental institution, which is just down the hill from the plant, overlooking the freeway across a sweeping slope of lawn from behind a line of cottonwoods planted like sentries.

(Story goes that the City fathers had the choice: mental institution or university? They chose the sanitarium because they thought the doctors would bring a lot of money to town. They didn't, but my great uncle practiced general medicine there for a time and the City judge recalls Dr. Bertoncelj in the exam room as he rebroke the arm Judge Lavery had broken skateboarding and left too long untreated. "I remember his cigarette just dangling there on his lip and those two big paws on my skinny arm. I must have been about 10." I'm sure I've mentioned this, but Grandma used to hunt arrowheads down the hill from the State Hospital, in Uinta Meadows where Morgan's house is now. That fascinates me.)

Anyway, I pestered Jeffie to tell me what working on the rigs was like then, and he's an enthusiastic story teller and a good one. He described the ineptitude of some drillers and the danger and filth on a rig. "Green" was the word he used, and "dirty." He sketched the blocks and the kelly and the turntable and the drill bit itself, and the hose that carried mud (at 3,300 psi) to cool and lubricate the bit. This was the rig he worked on twenty years ago, not the rigs they use now. I wanted to keep the Post-it he doodled on and scan it for you but I forgot to grab it. (Never attempt to rescue anything from any trash receptacle at the plant. Two of the four of us chew tobacco, and I'm not one of them. And Jeffie quit decades ago.)

We practiced scanning with the article (Jeff got a new computer and scanner when he took over so we can scan our reports and lab results and e-mail them directly to the EPA, and he's learning to scan, e-mail, and type, although it's still pretty much hunt-and-peck. He's doing very well but there are occasional setbacks, including his spelling, which is so incredibly phonetic that sometimes SpellCheck can't even offer suggestions for the word he meant, and sometimes he'll accidentally write an e-mail in the "notes" section of a contact's digital business card. But he likes to right click, click and drag, and copy and paste, so it's getting easier). It came out on the screen looking crinkled and ivory with age, with a few spectacular dribbles of coffee here and there and some badly smudged text in one corner that was still readable. Just like the original. It looked like a treasure map. And because I like stories, I like things keys that unlock stories, like that tattered paper. So in its way it is a treasure map.

And so the days are passing.


Blogger mister anchovy said...

Those stories are treasures.

January 14, 2009 at 5:56 AM  

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