Harry hits the road


Chapter 17: roughnecking

Sunday morning I’m balling the jack up to Oklahoma so I can roughneck on a rig outside Tulsa come Monday morning. That’s such a retro-macho sentence I keep saying it over and over in my head all the way from Austin to Waco. The term roughnecking means just what it sounds like: rough work on an oil well. Balling the jack sounds nasty, but it actually refers to an old fashioned dance step, repairing a railroad track, and in the sense applicable to me, driving fast in my Smart Car.

A little too fast. Soon as I put Dallas in my rearview mirror, which is the best place for that Godforsaken excuse for a city to be, I see the flashing red lights of a black and white. Damn if it ain’t a Department of Public Safety (DPS) officer, the equivalent of a state trooper who probably can’t cut it as a Texas Ranger.

Hell did I do wrong? The speed limit on Interstate 75 is 65 miles per hour. My Smart Car starts shimmying around 85. I haven’t felt it shimmy all morning, so I can only have been 80ish. GWS -- guess we’ll see.

“Where you headed?” the DPS officer asks, peering in the passenger side window after I pull over in the breakdown lane.

I say my new favorite sentence again, omitting the balling the jack part.

“How long you been on the road?”

 “Well, sir, I set out from New York on June 28,” I say, and then I launch into a long riff about the itinerary and purposes of my road trip, inserting a “sir” at the beginning or end of every sentence. Growing up in Texas, I learned early on that you’re usually going to be much better off -- and maybe even get off -- if you feed the fuzz, especially if you’ve got a little contraband cannabis stashed in your bags like I do.

The DPS officer starts looking over my silly little turquoise wrapped hunk of junk, nodding his head, even cracking a smile, and pretty soon we’re just about good buddies. He lets me off with a written warning, and tells me to take it easy.

“Yes, sir,” I say. “Thank you, sir.”

I merge back onto I-75 sober as a judge but feeling what my actual good buddy Dan Jenkins describes as the last two stages of being drunk: bulletproof and invisible. As I cross the Red River into Oklahoma, I get to thinking about what I’ve left behind in Texas, not only my flirtation with Patsie but also my entire romantic history as it relates to Muse’s observation that I can’t stand to be with one woman for more than twenty-four hours in a row.

Could be a reason why that traces all the way back to my childhood in Houston. Maybe out of laziness, a recognition of her own limitations, or both, my alcoholic mother Magee hired a live-in Irish Catholic governess named Carney six months after I was born. Carney stayed with our family for 18 years, and did most of the child rearing heavy lifting for me and my three siblings.

Magee would take us to school on opening day, but Carney did the drop offs and pick ups after that. It was Carney who changed our diapers, made sure we brushed out teeth, and hounded us to study our catechism. She’d enforce her will if need be with the flick of a balloon stick in the spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child tradition. When there were thunderstorms, she had us pray the rosary on our knees, and then let us crawl under the covers in her bed.

Along with having opposite personalities, my mother and my governess were opposite physical types. Magee was tall, shapely legged, and big breasted like Muse. Carney was more like Patsie, short, flat bellied and flat chested. Magee smoked cigarettes and liked to pose in front of a mirror watching herself. Carney never smoked and considered looking in mirrors a mortal sin of vanity. But she did enjoy drinking the occasional Old Fashioned cocktail, however, a minor vice Magee exploited to lure her into the argument that prompted her dismissal.

We also had Leffie, a big boned maid, cook, and seamstress with mocha skin and espresso eyes full of both weariness and wonder. Leffie stayed on 25 years. Leffie lived in the Fifth Ward ghetto, not far from my late friend Mickey Leland. She rode the bus back and forth to our house every day until she and her husband Roosevelt saved enough money to buy a Mercury sedan. Leffie was a black Baptist archangel. Along with custom stitching my Halloween costumes, she taught me to sing spirituals and to regard, and even address, other people as “brothers” and “sisters.”

Michael Stovall of Genie Well Service

By the time I get to Tulsa, it occurs to me that maybe my so-called wandering eye comes from being raised by three mothers rather than just one. Maybe that’s what compels me to seek different women to satisfy different needs, spiritual, intellectual, sexual. Or maybe that’s just a lame excuse couched in a bunch of psycho-babble like Muse’s term man-o-pause. A man’s testosterone levels supposedly drop after age 45, but maybe I’m the exception that proves how unruly a man can really be. Maybe it all boils down to the fact that I am -- and always will be -- a three-timing, tushy-teething horndog.


“Today you’re gonna be a worm.”

My old boarding school classmate Michael Stovall lays that Monday morning morsel on me like he’s the early bird. Feathery brown haired, slope-shouldered, born in Texas and reared in North Carolina, Michael is a lawyer by training. But he also happens to be the president of Genie Well Service, a company founded by him, his late father, and a long time partner named Kenneth Valliquette.

We’re flying along a red dirt road near Luther, Oklahoma, in a mud-splattered Ford Excursion, and I’m thinking my late father, the independent oilman, would be proud of me at long last. A worm is one of the more polite terms for a rookie roughneck. I’m literally going to start at the bottom, laboring on the floor of an oil rig.

Michael jerks the Ford to a stop at clearing by the roadside. The well location is between a pair of black pumper jacks, a couple of box-shaped service trucks, and a portable aluminum shack nicknamed the Dog House, which is familiar to me as the metaphorical place to which I’m often sent in the course of romantic relationships.

The rig stands over 100 feet tall from the grounding legs to the top of the steel cross-hatched derrick, and weighs 60 gross tons. The machinery that raises and lowers pipe makes the same sound as the microscopic little bastards with ice picks who torment my hungover head at ten times the decibels. I put on heavy duty coveralls, boots, safety glasses, a plastic hard hat, and a pair of work gloves.

“Before we got here, the down-hole pump at the bottom of the bore hole quit working properly,” Michael informs me. “Our job is to find out what’s wrong with it, and to get the oil and natural gas flowing again.”

Michael’s partner Kenneth ambles over. He’s a weather beaten Okie in his early seventies, and today he’s acting as tool pusher, the supervisor of the four-man crew. He greets me with the same skeptical up and down he gives every other worm.

“This is making me a little nervous,” Kenneth says.

“He’ll do fine,” Michael says. “He’s a Choatie like me.”

“That’s what worries me.”

I’m a bit anxious myself: this is going to be the first strenuous physical labor I’ve attempted since I broke my wrist.

Holding onto my hard hat, I follow Michael to a catwalk on the near side of the rig. He introduces me to Daniel, a chunky Hispanic fellow in his early thirties. Daniel is the operator of the well; he’s got hands-on responsibility for running the rig and directing the crew.

Kenneth Valliquette of Genie Well Service

Michael tells me that the two Hispanic men standing on the platform nearby are   floor hands. They’re names are Tovias and Marcello, and they happen to be father and son. The derrick hand, a fourth Hispanic man named Luis, is perched on the crow’s nest thirty yards above our heads. I hand Michael a Flip camera, and show him how to push the buttons and shoot.

“Okay, worm, take the horns and get to work,” Daniel says.

Translated from oil patch lingo, he’s telling me to walk out on the platform floor, and grab onto a pair of horn-shaped metal handles protruding from a vice-like clamp. The clamp is the business end of a vertical rod called a tubing elevator that hangs down from the top of the derrick. Much like an elevator in an office building, the tubing elevator raises and lowers the pipes through which the hydrocarbons flow.

Closing a clamp around the end of a pipe ain’t exactly brain science, but I find a way to mess it right up. Gripping the horns in my work gloves, I try to squeeze them together gently, like I’m plugging in lengths of extension cord. When I lean back to wait for the pipe to come up, I see that the clamp didn’t catch.

“Snap it together hard, worm!” Daniel hollers at me. “You got to do it like a man!”

I hear Michael, Tovias, and Marcello laughing behind my back. But this here worm is fixing to turn into a true roughneck. I latch onto the horns like a bull wrangler, yanking the tips with all my mite. The clamp snaps shut with a clang that reverberates over the roar of the rest of the machinery.

Floor hand Tovias

“El Toro!” I holler.

Seconds later, a section of pipe comes out of the ground. I watch Tovias guide it away from the hole and stack it on a pipe rack at the far end of the platform.

“Do it like a man!” I holler at Daniel, flexing my biceps.

“Okay, worm!” he hollers back. “Now do it again!”

I repeat the same horn clamping process about twenty times. In order to find out what went wrong with the down-hole pump, we have to extract more than 6,000 feet of pipe from the hole. The pipe is divided into individual sub-sections or “joints” that measure 31.5 feet long. We’re “pulling doubles,” which means that each length of pipe comprises two joints measuring 63 feet.

After an hour or so, Daniel orders me to take a turn on the power tongs. In the old days, roughnecks used wrenches to unscrew pipe joints. Since the power tongs are hydraulic, they require much less muscle power but you do have to use your head to operate the levers and buttons. I manage to screw up the unscrewing several times before I get the hang of it. 

Luckily for me, Daniel and the rest of the crew were already on the job for about five hours before Michael and I arrived. We pull the last double shortly after 1 p.m. A technician from an oilfield equipment supply firm climbs onto the platform to have a look. He finds that the shaft of the pumping unit on the very bottom of the lowest pipe section is stuck in the coupling.

“Broke plum off, sheared it in two,” says the technician. “Gonna have to send it back to Tulsa and let ‘em rework it.”

After shooting a closing stand up with the Flip camera, Michael and I join Kenneth for a late lunch at a joint called Ruth’s Carney Cafe. I’m thinking it might not be so bad to be a roughneck after all. The buffet lunch of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, beans, biscuits, gravy, and all the iced tea you can drink costs about seven bucks. That price sounds right until I find out that roughnecks only make $12 an hour.

“And if you’re Hispanic like many of my guys, you get hassled by redneck Okie sheriffs from time to time,” Michael says.

He adds that he recently caught a local deputy handcuffing one of his employees in a parking lot with the intent of hauling him off to jail on illegal immigration charges.

“The deputy says, ‘I know an illegal when I see one,’” Michael recalls. “I tell him my employee has a green card and if you don’t release him right this second, I’m gonna file civil rights charges against you. The deputy says, ‘What are you -- a lawyer?’ And I say, ‘As a matter of fact I am.’

“Well, the deputy goes over to his cruiser and starts talking on his cell phone,” Michael continues. “After a few minutes, he comes back with this hang dog look on his face, and uncuffs my employee. It’s cuz of crap like that guys quit and run off to find work in Texas. Even the damn Texas Rangers aren’t gonna arrest somebody cuz they think they know an illegal when they see one.”

Kenneth grunts between chews on a biscuit. “Hell, jail might be the safest place for some of these guys,” he says. “While back, another one of our rig hands slipped on a rig floor and hurt his hip. He goes to the doctor for an X-ray, and the doctor says, ‘You know you got a bullet stuck in your butt?’ The rig hand tells the doctor, ‘Well, I got shot at in a cantina down in Mexico, but I thought the bullet glanced off.’”

I laugh along with Kenneth and Michael, and keep on laughing for most of the two hour drive back to Michael’s condo in Tulsa. My wrist is holding up just fine, and I can’t wait to start editing the video of my oil rig gig. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a raging tornado strikes over my iPhone line.


“You are a liar and a pervert!” Muse screams.

Good thing I’m sitting down in a chair at the dinner table without a bullet in my butt. If I’d gotten that kind of critique standing up, I sure as shit would have fainted dead on the floor. I’m fixing to wish I had anyway.

“What do you mean?” I ask in a quavering voice.

“I find the evidence about you and your gym teacher moron!”

I’ve been called a liar lots of times, but never a pervert. This is obviously going to take some explaining -- on both sides-- but my throat is clogging up like the pump coupling back at the oil well.

“When you come back to see Harrison for his birthday, you print out pictures of the little cretin,” Muse says, lowering her voice like she’s about to cry. “The cleaning lady finds them when she takes the recycling cans and bottles out of the garbage cans in back of Halsey House. She mails them to me because she is very loyal.”

Uh-oh, I’m thinking. My oil well’s about to get plugged and abandoned.

“She wears a stupid sports bra and almost nothing else,” Muse continues. “She poses on the back of your Smart Car. She poses on the hood of your Smart Car. She poses inside the Smart Car, where I am sure you try to have sex with her. Why? Why? Why? Why do you have to take pictures to embarrass me?”

“I don’t do it to embarrass you. I shot those photos when we were making the exercise video. They’re tamer than the movie star spreads they run in Vanity Fair. There isn’t even any nudity.”

“They are idiotic.”

“Aw, now, honey...

“Don’t you aw now honey me!” Muse says, raising her voice again. “I never go out with you again. I am in Europe now. I stay here as long as I want. Already I have someone who is in love with me.”

“You do?”

“Ja, I do. He is a very wealthy Austrian aristocrat I went to school with. Maybe I don’t ever come back to your stupid country full of floozies.”

I hear her crying out loud. Her tears tear me up. This can’t really be happening.

“Bitte, come on,” I say, pleading. “Let me fix us.”

“Nein!” Muse hollers. “You don’t fix us! “

“Why not?“I tell you we are kaput!”

"But...but... “

Next sound I hear is her hang up echoing like a gun shot in an empty cantina.


Photograph Captions and Credits: 1. Michael Stovall of Genie Well Service (HH3) 2. Kenneth Valliquette of Genie Oil Service (HH3) 3. Floor hand Tovias (HH3) 4. Derrick hand Luis (HH3)