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Thursday, March 17, 2005

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now...

One season when I was a teenager the offshore work for a diver tender was getting off to a slow start so I signed on as a welders helper to go on a natural gas production platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Being a gas platform there was no smoking allowed anywhere on the rig except inside the specially closed off living quarters on the main deck. Natural gas is colorless and odorless, it doesn't have any smell until the gas company adds it in after processing inshore. In other words, you could be standing directly in an area where the air itself is flammable or even explosive depending on the amount present and not even know it.

If you know even the tiniest bit about welding and cutting steel, you know that it means you're using high-current electrical arcs and very high temperature flame to burn thru solid steel. The platform needed some modifications done to add in new equipment and we were there to take care of that detail, except no one had told me beforehand the type of working conditions. I was 17 yrs old, wet behind the ears, with no firefighting training, and I really enjoyed living, so what the hell was I doing there?

One thing you didn't do when working in industries like that was show any signs of being a wuss or wimpy or a candy ass, the men would seize on it and ride you with teasing till your life was miserable. Saying you didn't wanna get your ass blown to smithereenies and back fell under the category of being a wuss, so I kept my mouth shut and wished I had some way to walk on water or I would have gotten my not so happy butt off that crazy thing FAST.

The horror of being labeled a candy ass was quickly demonstrated to a hapless electrician that became the butt of many jokes and relentless teasing after he showed what he was made of on our very first task on this job. This man had a brand new toolbox with fancy tools and screwdrivers and such and wore all new uniform clothes, yeah, this guy absolutely reeked of newbieness. You just didn't bring ALL new clothes on a job much less brand spanking new tools. He was ripe for the picking and an easy target for fun at the hands of the crew. The welder I was helping wasn't particularly pleasant to start with, either, he chewed tobacco and had a nasty ass habit of spittin' that disgusting chew all over the deck. He was an older guy and looked like he had seen too many seasons offshore, rough face and hands caused by a long, hard scrabble life but with lots of job experience.

The electrician had some cables to be run inside of a steel enclosure on the main deck, this involved him on a ladder holding the cable clamps to the ceiling where he wanted them placed and the welder on another ladder there to weld the clamps to the steel ceiling. This meant lots of little balls of molten metal falling down all over you and a shower of hotsparks. This shit could burn right thru ordinary clothes so you wore heavy leather sleeves and a jacket to keep it from burning thru, BUT a good hunk of molten steel would get that leather so damn hot you wanted to yell because it burned so bad and may even leave a blister right thru the leathers. You did not yell, you did not jump, you did not complain, and you most definitely did not whine, this was the JOB and if you were too wussy to do it you had no business being there. Complaining like a little baby was just not done!! Too bad for the electrician, he sealed his fate with so much bitchin' and moanin' and whinin' about the hot sparks being hot and the metal was burning him and this and that till the point where the welder got so angry he welded the mans screwdriver to the ceiling with the clamp and then ran the current down the shaft and burned it off right at the handle! When he looked up and saw what was done I swear the man started crying! Crying over a cheap-ass piece of shit screwdriver! His fate was forever sealed, he joined the ranks of gurly-men everywhere and would never leave. He was in offshore hell, with nowhere to go and no escape from a week full of torment till the next boat going inshore arrived. No man likes being called a sissy, ever.

The next day I had a test of will that scared the bejeebus out of me and very nearly caused me to jump a hundred feet down into the sea. Me and the welder went to a lower deck and he showed me where he was going to be cutting a hole in the floor of the steel deck above. The hole was to be directly above one of the well heads where the gas was coming up out of the ocean floor, it was covered with all kinds of small piping and gauges and such to monitor the gas pressure and stuff. He had me get a fire extinguisher and said to standby there and put out the fire when he starts burning overhead as the gas will catch fire from the hot sparks falling. I thought he was kidding about it catching fire, I mean I thought I must surely have been there for just in case it would , not when it would.

I quickly found out it was no joke, the sparks fell, the fire started and I mean all this shit was in flames, big flames and it was spreading across the piping like crazy. Yeah, the thought of a near nuclear type blast ensuing next as the gas exploded into a fiery inferno sending debris for miles into the air, and me along with it crossed my mind and I was momentarily petrified, I had the extinguisher in hand but my first thought was to chuck the sumbitch and haul ass to the rail and leap overboard! I didn't of course, I hitched up my pants and cranked up that extinguisher and quickly put the fire out. I was SO elated, you just have no idea. Of course I now had a swelled head, as I felt like I had saved everyone from imminent doom by my heroic actions, but I was wrong I quickly found out. When I excitedly told the welder what happened he laughed and said yeah, that sometimes happens, why did I think he said to standby with the extinguisher?

I was no hero, I had just done what was expected of me as a man. It was a rite of passage for me though, I had faced possible disaster and death in my own mind and stood my ground, and I was damn glad the welder didn't notice the slight tremble in my voice and hands a few minutes later.

Or maybe he did, and just respected me enough that he didn't mention it. We got along pretty good after that, I was now one of the men, no longer a mere boy.