In the ’70s, after drilling and pushing tools for a few years, I had every roughneck’s dream. Every roughneck I ever met wants to be a fisherman. They see him sit in his truck, making pretty good money, and they trip pipe. That’s gotta be better, right? Sometimes, but not always.

One of the big differences back then was safety. A lot of hands grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, and I can tell you one thing: If they had urine tests in those days, gas would have been $10 a gallon, ‘cause there would have been nobody to drill! I’ve seen a lot of crews walking around about a foot off the ground but, somehow, they managed to get it done. Plenty of hair and beards, too. I know hands that wouldn’t work in a sour gas field ‘cause they’d have to shave. Ya gotta have priorities, I guess. Long hair was the norm. They didn’t seem to realize it was dangerous, hot in the summer and takes a lot more taking care of if you don’t want to look like a dog with mange. Every once in a while, we’d hear of a hand getting scalped, or worse, getting his ponytail caught in rotating machinery. My hair didn’t grow very fast so I never had really long hair, but my beard would have made Duck Dynasty or ZZ Top proud.

There weren’t too many organized safety programs at the company level. A good pusher or driller always tried to watch out for his hands and it worked pretty well, on a rig to rig basis. Some of the more forward thinking companies had an established safety program and were trying hard to keep their insurance rates down. This was important in a boom situation, when every rig was infested with worms.

Drilling rig crew member

Rig crews these days are often a presentable bunch, with cut hair and a shave. Columnist Wayne Nash remembers when long hair and an unkempt beard were the norm. Source: iStock

This reminds me of a story ...

I was living in Rosenberg, Texas, at the time, running tools for Tri-State out of Pearland, Texas. There was a small field about 15 miles from my house that was being drilled by one of the new companies that seemed to crop up in every boom. They had brand new rigs, the best of everything (for the time), and a herd of worms that would have made a fisherman proud (pun intended). They managed to stick or twist off almost every bit they put in the ground. Since I lived close by, I would often get the call. I’d show up at the rig with my tools, and the driller would announce that he was shorthanded and couldn’t go in the hole without help. In those days, most fishermen had come up through the ranks and knew all the positions on the rig. It would go like this:

Driller: “I don’t have a derrick hand, would you help out?”

Me: “Yup, but you are going in the derrick and I’m on the brake ...”

Hiring was done, in those days, on the spot. You put your name and Social Security number on the book and you were hired. I’d sign in and proceed to fish the well. I had to be there anyway, so it was just gravy. After three or four days, we would recover the fish and I’d be on my way. In a week or two, a check would arrive at my house for however many hours I was on the book.

This went on for months as they drilled the field. I’d end up on that rig several days each month, with a little bonus check each time. I really liked it because it was close to the house, I was a single dad, the rig was a brand new 80B National that ran like a top and I was making side money. Eventually, it got to where I went up there on my days off and made more hole and money. I never roughnecked for them, I always got on the brake, and they were glad of it.

Funny thing was, since it was a brand new company with brand new rigs and brand new management (read: totally inexperienced), they had instituted a pretty good safety program. After about six months of off-again-on-again fishing on that rig, I got a letter from the front office telling me that “my crew” had not had any accidents and I was eligible for a new slicker, a pair of coveralls or two dozen pairs of gloves.

Those days are long gone. Now, a fisherman can’t touch any controls, no matter what. It can be very frustrating to try to explain finesse to a young driller that wants to git ‘er done, or is just plain wild as a peach orchard boar. Takes a little more patience than I had back then. Seems like insurance hands, lawyers, bean counters and other assorted weasels run the patch today. It is very seldom that I get a chance to “get on the brake.” But there are exceptions.

A couple years ago, my hitch fell so that I had to work over Christmas. We didn’t have any active jobs, and I was on call far from home and feeling pretty down. It would have been better to be on a job than wait for the phone to ring. About 10:00 a.m., I got a call from a friend who had a rig about 20 miles from the camp. He asked me what I was doing and I told him. He said, “Come out to the rig and eat Christmas dinner with us.” Alright!

I headed to the rig and when I got there, the pusher was coming out of the hole. I asked him what was going on. He told me that the company man would let them shut down for Christmas dinner if they tripped the pipe into the casing.

“Where’s the driller?” I asked.

He told me that “Rooster” was a lot better cook and that he was down in the shack, cooking a turkey. I stood around drinking coffee until the pusher realized that he had to call the office “right now,” and asked me to finish pulling out of the hole! I asked him if he thought that was OK. “Sure, it’s Christmas,” he said. Since the rig was the brother to a rig I had pushed in east Texas (110 National), I knew it like I know my kids. I got on the brake and started out, while the pusher went to make his phone calls. Everything was going great, the crew was good and we were gittin’ ‘er done. After a while, the pusher came back on the floor to see how close we were to the casing shoe. Not far. By that time, we had gotten light enough that I figured to go into high gear and really make some time. I started shifting the compound into high when the pusher stopped me and said, “Don’t do it. This crew has never seen this rig in high. You’ll kill somebody.”

 Oh well. I had a memorable Christmas.