Excerpt from “The Moral Lives of Righands”
MOST DAYS NOBODY greeted each other at the beginning of the day, no “Good morning” or “How’s it going?” We would pile into the crew truck with our bags and lunch containers and arrange ourselves in silence. Nobody said goodbye at the end of the day either, as though the time between one workday and the next were a scene change in an ongoing play.
We sat in the pickup at 5:30 a.m., engine running, waiting for each crew member to stagger from trailer to truck to begin the ride to our work site. Pato settled into the corner of the back seat, a camouflage baseball cap pulled low over his face.
“What’d you do yesterday?” he asked. We had had the day off unexpectedly. The company man had called Wilkes, our operator, before we left the yard and said to stay home. High winds were making it too risky to run the rig.
“Read a little,” I said. “Chilled. What’d you do?”
“Jerked off. Slept. I was going to jerk off again this morning but I woke up too late.”
We waited on Johnny Jr. to come to the truck. For a person separated from his family, the Bakken offered little to occupy oneself with other than work. Pato otherwise lived 90 minutes away with his girlfriend, their two-month-old, and his girlfriend’s parents. He had three kids in the lower Midwest as well, ages 18, 16, and 8. He himself was 38. He had been putting in long hours in the oilfields for years, often in remote locations away from his family.
“You never saw that movie?” Andrew asked him one day while we were chatting. “How could you have never seen that movie?”
“I was working,” Pato deadpanned.
The truck warmed up. A little after 5:30 Wilkes told me to go bang on the door of Johnny’s trailer. I banged until he answered, bleary-eyed and shirtless.
“What’s up,” I said.
He disappeared to put on work clothes. Johnny Jr. was the youngest member of the crew, a lean, tattooed twenty-year-old working his first job out of high school. His father Johnny Sr. was a rig manager. On my first day of work I had arrived at the yard and found him half-asleep in the back seat of the company pickup waiting for the rest of the crew.
“I’m the new guy,” I said. “Johnny told me to be here at 5:15.” I got in the truck and introduced myself. “I’m Cary.”
“You’re Johnny too?”
“I’m Johnny Jr.”
He closed his eyes, but I made conversation anyway. “Do you live here?” I asked, gesturing to the row of employee trailers.
“I live in the trailer on the end. Paradise.”
“I bet it’s real nice in the winter.”
“Fuck. I wanna kill myself in the winter.”
In lighter moments Johnny Jr. provided comic relief for the crew, both as the butt of jokes and as the purveyor of goofball humor. If you asked him how he was doing, his ready response came in a comically exaggerated drawl. “Marinatin’,” he’d offer. He liked to tease the opening line of an obscure country song by oilfield troubadour Wes St. Jon. “Have you ever heard the story,” he’d start, and after pausing for comedic effect he’d resume in his exaggerated drawl, “about the hard-workin’ oil righands?”
The five of us left the yard sometime after 5:30 with Andrew at the wheel. Andrew’s attention had turned squarely toward his time off at the end of the month. He claimed that when he went home he was going to take all his stuff with him. He wouldn’t be coming back. “Sixteen days,” he kept announcing, a tally of the time separating him from his departure. Then he’d sing the refrain of Europe’s 1986 hit song “The Final Countdown” along with its famous synthesizer theme.
He had his eye on other jobs, as did the rest of the crew. Pato claimed he wanted out of the oilfield. He was looking into a job in the meat department of a grocery store in Montana, as well as a job at a natural gas processing plant. Wilkes was putting in applications for oilfield and gasfield jobs all over the country: Colorado, California, Texas, Pennsylvania. Last week Andrew had filled out an application, seemingly on a whim, to work nights at Walmart. At $18.50 an hour, it would be substantially less than a righand’s wage, but the hours would be regular and predictable. The oilfield could be feast or famine, and in 2015 it had been mostly famine.
Today he was saying he’d do farmwork with his sister in California. You could make $100 or more a day picking onions or grapes, all of it in cash, he said. He might do that for spending money while he collected unemployment. “‘Let’s go pick some fruit,’” he joked, “said no white man ever. Until this morning!”
He got on the phone with his step-brother in Texas, who told Andrew he could get him a job roughnecking down there for $20 an hour plus housing in an apartment—an upgrade from the trailer he lived in here. As a bonus, there were lots of good-looking women in Midland, he claimed. He got on the phone with a friend in California about a job laying rebar near Sacramento. That one would be $32 an hour with 40 hours a week guaranteed.
“It’s the fi-nal count-down! Doo-da-loo-doo, doo-da-loo-doo-doo…”
We passed the towns of Ray and Tioga on our way to a well near Stanley. The conversation shifted to what it’s like to go home. Andrew, Wilkes, and Johnny Jr. had come to North Dakota from the same town out west. Last night Andrew had gone on Facebook to announce that he’d be back soon, and he said he got as many “likes” as he’s ever gotten. Women were telling him he should get in touch.
“Everyone who’s been up here has a badass fucking vehicle,” he said. Around the country, working-class communities like Andrew’s had loaned manpower to the oil boom, and the returns were visible in the form of new trucks, boats, and motorcycles. Andrew himself had a jacked-up GMC Sierra Denali.
“Can’t live in a vehicle though,” Wilkes noted.
“That’s why I’m like fuck dude I should have bought a house.” Andrew laughed. “I’ve probably made a little less than two hundred grand over the last couple years and I haven’t saved a dime. But I had a fucking good time.”
The good time hadn’t dampened his enthusiasm for leaving, however. In addition to the lack of women to date, there was the merciless North Dakota winter, a test of fortitude that was worn as a badge of honor by those who had worked through it.
“Everyone’s excited to see you when you get back,” Andrew said.
Johnny Jr. chimed in from the backseat. “It’s like coming home from jail!”
They all laughed. Johnny Jr., Andrew, and Wilkes had each done time. Wilkes riffed on the similarities. “New clothes. New shoes. Cheeseburgers.”
“You know what I’m going to be happy about?” Andrew asked. “Being close to a fucking mall. Not having to drive four hours to get something.” Aside from the local Walmart, the closest destinations for shopping were between two and four hours away in Minot, Bismarck, or across the Canadian border in Regina.
Our drive to the work site had taken an hour and a half. Andrew turned off the highway onto the gravel road that led to the well we were working on. We followed the road, straight as a ruler, across two miles of rolling prairie before turning onto another gravel road and going another two miles, dust billowing behind us. Finally we veered onto a private road posted with “No Trespassing” signs. We wound through hills dotted with cattle. The sky was pale with the suggestion of daylight. In the distance we spotted our rig, its derrick curtained with upright stands of pipe and hanging sheets of sucker rods. Andrew gazed at the horizon with mock reverence.
“There she stands, tall and proud.”
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