Don Russell 21/09/21
The return to the oil rig construction yard where I once worked.
I left here a place full of busyness and industry on the edge of the firth over thirty years ago.
Today, I am back. Now it is a deserted beach. The wind whistling through the sand, the mix stinging my eyes.
Nature ultimately changes what we create, but not that of its own making. The tarmac roads from years ago long vanished, but the screeching seagulls still swoop down, attacking my intrusion. Experience and instinct alert me and I raise my arm in protection. They lose interest in me, returning to the coastal squall, producing acrobatic dips and soaring as their wings steal energy from the wind.
Initially it appears all is gone, then the sun glints by my foot, I poke my toe in the sand to reveal it in its entirety. Crouching I pick up a stainless-steel retaining ring for a gas hose which I nurse in my palm. It produces a trickle of memories, increasing to a stream, my mind fills with nameless faces and faceless names.
Surveying the huge, barren, sand flats once hosting the construction yard for the building of rigs it is hard to believe what was here. I remember the welding and grinding inside the heated metal pipes, the sweat, rust and fumes that permeated through my clothing to stubbornly taint my body with a metallic odour. The soot clogged phlegm that travelled home with me for disposal in the shower later as I eradicated the smell and taste of my toil. I had been but one of some 2000 men, full of love and hate and all the other emotions that go between these extremes working in such a place.
It was 1977, the North Sea Oil Boom, Scotland’s oil brought a resurgence for independence. A dismay by many that Thatcher was filching it to clear the national debt. But for me, like many it was an opportunity. Leaving the comfort of a warm office, Noel Edmond’s morning show on Radio One. The last week of office working, retained in my memory as the week when Elvis died.
My first shift, how I yearned to be back at the office instead of limping around with blisters on my heels from new boots. This strange world of industrial noise, lights, the broad accents of men from the east coast. Learning about a new world and how to exist within it.
My first payday, a rise from £30 to £90 more than cushioned this introduction to this hard new place where longevity of employment was not assured. Risk equals reward. The pleasure of feeling financially secure as our first child was due.
It was physical work as a general operative (American terminology for labourer), but my twenty-three-year-old body was well capable of coping and enjoyed the physical challenge. It was also a time of gathering wisdom. Of watching the ways of men. Of learning how to relate to different people. There are many instances that remain in my memory but three more prevalent. The first I have remembered and carried throughout my life, the second a mystery I will never solve, the third the simple beauty of our world.
The yard was American owned and there was a system of hierarchy determined by the colour of your safety helmet. The top men wore gold hats, initially, predominately American. They were usually affable, genuinely interested in what you were doing. Men of few airs and graces. They would occasionally wander around the area where the rig was being built. Stop awhile and talk with the men doing the building, enquire how your day was going , what their job was.
One day a gold hat, his name is irrelevant, stopped where two of us were working putting covers round a scaffolding for a welder to begin his work in the dry and out of the wind.
Him “What’s your job, buddy?”
Me “I’m only a G.O.” (general operative red hat.)
“You are never ‘only’ anything in this life” he responded in an easy American drawl. “Listen son if you didn’t put up these covers our welder couldn’t join these pipes up. If we didn’t have the pipes joined, we couldn’t build our rig. “Offering his hand which I accepted he continued. “I just want to thank you for the work you do for our company.”
Despite the impression on the exterior of hardness there was space for intimacy. Sometimes I would be assigned to a welder to help repair a faulty weld. He would gouge out the bad weld, I would grind out the finer bits. We would have to wait for it to be inspected before it being refilled. Often these repairs were carried out inside large pipes, over six feet in diameter. The team who did the checking could be a couple of hours before they appeared.
It was a Saturday. The welder I was working with was a quiet man who I got on well with and respected. We were sitting inside the pipe, enjoying a quiet smoke waiting for the inspector when he broke the silence.
He told me that he’d been out drinking, got into company, the rounds were flowing, the craic was good. He’d gone to the bar to buy his round and had started chatting to a woman. The long and the short was he walked her home and she invited him in for a drink and more.
When he got home his wife had gone to bed. In the fridge the sandwiches in the morning he found she’d made for him were in a Tupperware container. He showed me and the two small drawings his girls had put in saying they loved him.
By this point he was openly sobbing, broken, and saying he didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say.
We chatted through the day and following our discussion he decided rightly or wrongly he would put it down as a stupid mistake through too much drink. As we left the yard at the end of the shift, he was still upset but thanked me for listening.
On the following Monday I heard he’d been in an accident and hit by a car late on Saturday evening when he had gone out for a walk.
Apart from the woman and him, I don’t know if anyone else but me knew about the incident and I will never know. Was it an accident or his intention to be knocked down? I remember him fondly.
As a nightshift comes closer to its end than its beginning, a G.O. gets busier. Tying up covers over scaffolding around pipes to be welded on the day shift. Setting up machines and checking they were working. The hard frost of night, minus something, cold enough for your bare hands to stick to a pipe. Wrapped in thermals under your boiler suit, gloved and topped with waterproof jackets thick enough to keep in the warm but flexible enough to let you work.
I remember two of us on our last job of the shift setting up covers and a machine on one of the top corners of the rig, probably over a hundred feet up. When we had finished the work, we sat silently at rest. The sun appeared with a hint of warmth on a crisp frosty morning, its rays glistening on the calm firth, the rattling of pebbles from the surf on the shore below.
I’m not sure how long I stood here today, but turning as I made to leave I realised I still had the retaining clip in my grasp. A dichotomy. Past or present?