read various chapters of this autobiography by going to the Individual Stories menu to the right.

Tuesday, July 7, 1981

Oil Rigs

Timeline 1981-1985. My age: 19-23. Locations: Louisiana bayou country including New Orleans, Texas coast and the Gulf of Mexico.

Typical oil platform like I was on

After my return to Arkansas from a short stint living in Monroe Louisiana, my friend Greg Ward and I got obsessed with the idea to work offshore on the oil rigs of the Gulf of Mexico. We didn't know much of anything about them and had no connections with anyone who did.

We headed out anyway. In my 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit. We drove the route across the 30 mile Lake Pontchartrain Bridge and  through New Orleans (my initial reactions to NOLA was love, it was a big coastal city, more exciting than any city I had spent any real time in), then on to Houma Louisiana where Offshore Catering Service was headquartered.

We had drove all night, crossed the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge in the morning and made it to Offshore Catering Service before they closed at 5. We applied to be galleyhands -which is a dish washer, and cleaner of ALL things in the living quarters on an oil rig. We got a hotel room and...just hoped. We were kids so cable TV, air conditioning and a six pack of beer...all while 500 miles from home...was a big deal.

We checked back in the morning. Success!! We were now dishwashers!!

We weren't assigned to the same rig. I went to a rig by the name of Penrod 69. It was an exploratory rig, specializing in finding oil. The type of rig that pumps oil once it is found are called a production platform.

When the weather permits, we flew in helicopters, but my first few times going out were in crew boats, the weather was too rough for helicopters to land on the oil rigs.

I remember my greenhorn self riding on that first crew boat ride. The men are smelly, the whole world down there has a smell of petroleum -its just a world of heavy industrial and humidity induced sweatiness. We got to the rig after 8 hours at sea. I was wondering how we would get on the rig, assuming there would just be some nice stairs from sea level up to the living quarters.

I walked out on the rear main work deck of the boat and looked up the oil rig. The central platform of the rig was about 60 feet above the water. There were no stairs or ladder that I could see. Then the crane starting to lower our "ride". To the right in the photograph you'll see a relatively small round thing that looks almost exactly like a mini-trampoline. That is what one stands on when hoisted from the sea up to the rig.

Personnel were slinging their luggage bags into the middle of that mini-trampoline and then stepping on the outer ring and holding onto the rope mesh as the crane brought them up to the rig.

I make this all sound dramatic, but it was nothing but fun to me, I have absolutely no fear of heights or speed. Once a crane operator hung me out over the ocean for an extended period of time before the boat got there for me to board, and I loved it.

These personnel lifts are dangerous. Keep in mind they are used more during rough weather, the copters are the main transport when the skies are calm. I heard stories of some who got spooked while being lifted in rough seas, fell and splattered on the boat.

I never saw such an accident, but once I did see death on the high seas. Literally. I was standing on a gangway outside and talking with another galleyhand. I said what is that blue-green thing out there? As it floated closer we saw it was a nude dead man. A workboat came, they lifted the body onto the deck and took it to shore to authorities.

Greg and I did that first gig on a rig, then met up back in Houma and drove back to Arkansas. We then waited for another assignment. It came and we were to be at a heliport in 48 hours. We started the trip the next morning. The trip was in my car, so I got Greg to his heliport first, then I drove towards my heliport.

I got extremely tired and pulled over for a nap. I woke and it was past my arrival time deadline. I assumed I had lost the job entirely, later I would find out the industry is not so fixated on my Germanic punctuality, I would have only been a little late, not a biggie. But in my mind at that time, this was the end of my world. I really was the ultimate uncool, ready to rule myself guilty when social norms would have let me slide.

So I thought I was fired and jobless at that moment. Driving along Louisiana Highway 1 I picked up a hitchhiker. He told me about a boat company that hired deckhands and needed people. I went there and got a job right then. I told them I needed to do something with my car, so my ride to the boat followed me to Houma and I parked my car at the A-Bear Hotel (map), which was our hotel of choice. See this review from the web on that wonderful place:

A-Bear is possibly the worst motel I've ever had the misfortune at staying at, and that's saying a lot. The room is dirt cheap, but there is a reason it is cheap, like most things. Upon arrival, the bed wasn't made, and the A/C unit seemed to be out of order so they put me in a different room..beforehand I asked them to change the bed while I watched. Most people who go here are the lowlifes of societies..prostitutes and drug dealers. That night I saw a giant roach in the bathroom and there apparently was someone getting busy in the room next to me because that's what I heard all night long. I don't think I've ever been more scared that the police would come pushing down my door in some sort of routine raid on the place. Don't go to A-Bear, unless you are used to and don't mind staying at places that are hazardous to your health.

I left a note on the dash for Greg saying "I've gotten a job on a boat. Left my car here so you can drive it back to Arkansas. I'll get back home on a bus. Check out the Van Halen cassette I got".  I put the car key on the tire and left it. Of course Greg found it and and drove back to Arkansas.

I got to the heliport, and the helicopter took me to a rig, and on that rig they let me down onto the Robert R.

The Robert R was  a tiny firewatch boat dedicated to one oil rig. It anchored a few hundred feet out from the oil rig, and we watched the rig for fires 24/7.

The boat had two deckhands (myself included) and a captain. We had five hour shifts of watching the rig, though the captain took on most of the watch during the daytime.

I was 19 at the time, had two 45 pound dumbbells I actually carried into the boat in my luggage bag. I did ten sets of ten reps of arm curls every day, and push ups. I was 165 pounds, 6'1" -a beanpole with biceps. I had no finesse or coordination.

I say all that about my age and physical profile to prepare the reader for The Fishing Hook Story.

The captain was this little old angry man. A specific kind of little old angry man that lives in Las Vegas, New Jersey or New Orleans. And by that I mean a man with enough money to enough bad taste to wear tacky heavy jewelry, ornate button-up shirts and other things that go with that kind of get-up.

He was the set of people in his generation that liked Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and not Elvis and the Beatles. He even told some story about a a "hippy" band that had to cancel a performance because the electricity was out, which proves (to him) they couldn't play their instruments.

The captain hated me with a hate larger than the oil rig we were charged with watching. Let me give the poor little man a break by saying I was so dorky, aloof and accident prone some contempt was a little justified.

One of my accidents had been breaking a pole with hook on the end we used for pulling in fish too big and heavy for our fishing rods. We fished all the time. Pulled in mostly little sharks and some other random fish. We'd mostly through them back in.

One day the captain was fishing and caught a big one. He yelled a series of cuss words mixed with ordinary words at me to get the pole. I said it was broken. He yelled more cuss words louder, and told me to get the other fishing pole. We switched poles, me holding the original pole that caught the fish, while he tried to get the second pole's hook on the fish, with the idea two poles would have the strength to lift the fish onboard. He got the second hook into the fish.

At some point in the next minute I yanked on the fish too hard (my bicep strength combined with no finesse), the hook came out of the fish with loads of force, and the hook (a big deep sea fishing hook)
came rocketing by me and then did a circular orbit, it was a projectile on the end of a fishing line, orbiting me, fishing line wrapping around me and the orbit of the projectile getting closer every millisecond.

The hook went into my arm, into it and through it, the pointy end sticking back out.

I thought the scene would change and I'd get some sympathy.

The captain saw the hook in my arm, said more cuss words and reached over and yanked the hook out of my arm, and told the other deckhand to climb over the railing of the boat and pulled the fish in with his hands.

The fish turned out to be one that goes by several names: cobia, ling and lemon fish. It weighed a little over 70 pounds, and made 29 steaks.

I spent 5 weeks on the Robert R firewatch boat.

Back in Arkansas all heck had broke loose. There had been a murder. Greg had killed me and stolen my car.

That's what my mom and dad thought. Greg had returned my Volkswagen Rabbit to their home and given them the keys and told them I had left a short note saying I had found a job.

My mom and dad invited Greg to have dinner at Denny's, their treat. He went. During the visit they questioned him over and over about the trip, then finally my dad said "Come on Greg, admit it, you killed Lance".

Before my gig on the boat was up my mom found out from my friends in Louisiana -the Pinkstons- knew where I was. She wrote a letter that got to me, saying how worried they had been and...well...I had screwed up and had better get home soon.

I got back to Arkansas. I would go through some more odd Lance-situations: worked as transmission tear-down specialist at the shop my dad managed (Budget Transmission in North Little Rock AR), met and dated my lifelong good friend Mona Kimbrough, met the members of local rock band The Patios (Benny Turner on bass, Chris Maxwell on guitar and voice...he's has since moved to NYC and done sessions with Yoko Ono and St Vincent besides contributing to Wu-Tang Clan, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and others),  met and befriended Janor Hypercleats on same night I met The Patios, and rented a room at Benny Turner's house.

During this time in Arkansas, Greg Ward and I were inseparable. We pretty were through our whole 20's when I was in Arkansas. We were hanging with, and being, the first punk rockers in Central Arkansas. Greg had worked some more oil rig gigs to save up for a new set of Tama drums. He got his first time in a band as drummer in The Yarbles (led by Doug Corzine) -a cover band of Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, Ramones and Gang of Four. Greg and I were obsessed with music, especially the Police.

It's worth mentioning Greg became a prolific multi-instrumentlist and gigging musician in Little Rock and the region. From drummer in The Caterwaulers with Jeff Dee Laux, Zombie Fish (Scott Mullins guitar, Greg Ward bass, Phil Manning drums), to his latest incarnation as country songwriter in a John Cougar Mellencamp kind of authenticity vibe

That was all an interlude that deserves its own entries, but for this oil rig thread I'll just say that after a year and a half I left Benny's house and went back to Houma Louisiana and got back on at Offshore Catering Service.

My first rig, out of all the dozens or hundreds out there? The same Penrod 69. It was winter, and an especially cold spell in the low 30's. I can take minus 30 in most places, but in the humidity of Louisiana and the Gulf the low 30's is miserable.

Eventually I began staying at a $15 a night place in the middle of downtown Houma -the La Acadian. It was a huge old hotel, easily 100 years old. It was ornate and grand in the classic southern antebellum style, except in rough shape with rough clientele. Well, actually no one there looked really hardcore mean. It was just a big flop house, perfect for those going out on the rigs for several weeks then coming back onshore and needing a place. It had air conditioning and free cable TV, which made it paradise for me.

Offshore I was doing good. I usually did gigs of 2 to 5 weeks, I couldn't seem to take any longer than 5 weeks out there. While out there I developed a daily schedule of 12 hours of work, 6 hours of sleep, 3 hours reading and 3 hours working out. I would spend way too much money while onshore in New Orleans at bookstores, and lug those books out to the rigs.

A word about food. Southern Louisiana has one thing over most of the world, the food is amazing. Same with offshore, the workers on the rigs demanded good cajun food, and thats what was served. Red beans and rice were always served, even breakfast. Once a week steaks were grilled outside and served with fried shrimp. All this was all-you-can-eat. I usually had two steaks and two plate fulls of fried shrimp. Once a cook took a count of how many plates of beans and rice I had on a 12 hour shift working in the kitchen, he said I had eaten 10 plate fulls, not counting my 3 regular meals. I weighed 165 pounds and my stomach muscles were visible.

What was work like? Most of time was in the kitchen cleaning pots and pans while the cook cooked, then dishes during and after main meals (every six hours), then the rest of the time was cleaning the living quarters. Yes, cleaning the living quarters meant cleaning the dorm rooms the men slept in. Making up beds, sweeping and mopping floors. Then of course the shower rooms.

It wasn't that hard on most oil rigs. I remember one cook that deliberately used too many pots and pans just to mess with the galleyhand, he was the exception, most of the cooks were really good people, and a few were especially smart .

I worked under one cook who was a former judge that got in some trouble via sex scandal , he was a black man, brilliant, really liked hearing his stories. Another was full blood Cherokee, and he studied Confucius' Analects  with a serious focus on it as his life practice. He was a big serious man, but not a hard man, he was nice to me. Finally, I had a cook I met on a rig named Mark, he was from someplace like Illinois, and we actually hung out together in Houma. He was maybe five years older than me. We talked about music and politics mostly. Mark was my only friend onshore and offshore. He once remarked with a laugh "Lance, you're such a true believer in that punk rock socialist stuff, you sit at the meal table and talk to these oil field worker about Joe Strummer, and as dumb as I think it is, they'll actually sit there and listen".

To get to an oil rig, workers first go to a port that has both helicopters and boats. The weather determines whether boats or helicopters are going to be used. These ports were always far from any kind of real city, with the exception of the port on Grand Isle. I didn't have a car, so getting to and from these ports was of some difficulty.

I had to go to Offshore Catering Service, wait for the grocery supply truck bound for the same port (groceries were sent out same time as personnel) and I would ride with the truck driver. I got to nearly every big and little Louisiana state highway through the swamps of southern Louisiana.

South of Interstate 10 in Louisiana is a world unlike the rest of North America, and I saw all of it. The land slowly descends into the sea, with almost 100 miles of shallow marsh before finally meeting the sea. Grand Isle has the only typical ocean front beach in Louisiana. It is land of water, trees and exotic intensity of bugs and reptiles. I saw nutria rats (24 inches long, 20 pounds) regularly in the marsh.

The culture of southern Louisiana is a mix of plantation south and French. Actually the language of the area is the only remaining example of Old French.

Law and folk ways are...not like the rest of the country. It is a step back in time. Disputes are settled in ways not practiced at Yale. Judges like it when a father marches into the courthouse and guns down the accused rapist of his daughter, which happened when I was living there. The father walked free and the rapist was sentenced to forever.

I learned to be a little wily and tough there. Maybe too much.

Back to how those of us without a car got to and from the heliports. I would ride the supply truck to the port. Getting back was another thing entirely. When come from an oil rig to land the supply truck was always long gone. So the only way back to wherever was hitching a ride with a coworker from the rig. In all my cases of getting a ride with a coworker they were never going all the way where I was going, so at some point they dropped me off on a highway and I hitchhiked the rest of the way.

Greg once got a ride from a heliport all the way to Houma. This was the time I went out on the Robert R as a deckhand. Greg rode with the night cook he had worked with. Along the way they picked up a hitchhiker, named Sol. They drove on to Houma, dropped Greg off, and headed on down the highway. A short ways later, Sol took a rattlesnake out of a bag and let it bite the driver. It was in national news. The driver lived.

Once I was hitching back to Houma with a cook named Larry. Stopped in Morgan City diner for food. Morgan City was staggeringly dangerous in those days, and this diner was a meaner place than a prison meal hall. We got a ride from someone there, gas money for a ride. That ride ended at a fork in the road, the driver was going northeast and we needed to go southeast to Houma. It was 10PM on a Thursday night, no one around, it was getting late and the alligators were going to start stalking us. Finally around midnight a Camaro pulls over. It was a scary dude from the diner back in Morgan City. Sun glasses on, ski cap on. Larry leans in and talks to him and offers gas money, turns back to me and says "he's got a gun right beside him, watch out"...and we get in. I sat in the back seat of this two door Camaro, trapped, but ready for anything. We made it just fine.

Eventually I work up to what was considered better work on a production platform. It was an Exxon operation, and being a production rig it got better food and living quarters. There was one engineer on it that fished on all his off time, he would bring maybe 100 pounds of frozen fish back on his trip back home every week. One time he got this brilliant idea to just catch them all at once. The fish, each weighing maybe 20-30 pounds, were always swimming in a school. He got a big net, had hold of a rope coming off one end of it,  threw some food waste in the water to get them all grouped tightly, and he threw the net over them.

They almost took him to the bottom of the sea. Luckily he released the rope before last contact with the platform.

I got to see a large hammerhead circling its prey, a school of manta rays, porpoises and countless sunsets on the water.

I was scheduled to fly out off what was to be my last oil rig gig, I had moved to New Orleans and enrolled in Delgado Community College. I got up that morning about 3AM, got some coffee and stepped outside. I noticed an especially large shipping vessel with five cranes trolling along fairly close.

We were on a very special, experimental oil rig. It was in a trench, a part of the Gulf that is downstream from the outlet of the Mississippi River, hundreds of feet deeper than the usual shallow Gulf. Our rig was standing on one giant stilt-like structure, and held in the air by suspension cables.

Most Gulf based oil rigs are not like that, they are in shallow water and much more stable.

Over the years I had been in weekly emergency drills. That morning at about 5AM an unscheduled alarm went off, everyone ran outside. And there was that giant ship heading straight towards our rig. It was without power and had no means of steering. It was about 150 feet away, floating at water current speed to us.

It was a Korean vessel. When it got extremely close, a Korean deckhand ran out in the middle of the boat and snapped a flash photo of our rig looming over him. We laughed.

The boat slammed into and did about $100,000 in damage, but nothing catastrophic or of danger to personnel.

That was my last morning on an oil rig. Good times.

The author of this blog also has two books available on Amazon. Athena Techne uses some of the autobiographical content of this blog and adds a philosophical perspective utilizing the ancient Greek god Athena.

Athena Techne :: Page

Autistic Crow Computer is a fiction set in Seattle, about an autistic boy and two crows. The book was written for young autistic readers, although reviews by non-autistics have been positive.

Autistic Crow Computer :: Page