No one was even drilling for oil yet. Everything I saw out the window—the trucks, the cranes, the men—was there because a previous well had been drilled to completion. And so we had shown up, Diamondback Trucking, to take the rig—the mechanism that extracts oil from the well—apart and load it onto haul trucks to bring it here, to a new location, where it was being reassembled over a new drill hole.
The previous day, Bobby Lee had handed me a sheet of paper to sign. In the mornings, we had safety meetings. We stood around with the roughnecks; somebody talked over the day's plans, and we all signed a paper. I had never read the paper, but when Bobby handed me this page I thought it looked like all the others.
"Didn't I sign this already?" I asked him. "It's a new one," Bobby said.
"Okay," I said, putting my name across it.
"And when I hand you something," Bobby continued quietly, "don't ask any questions. Just fucking sign it. And smile."
He watched me silently until I faked a smile. "And like it," he told me. Then he breezed away.
Bobby Lee was like that. When a roughneck rushed up to him hollering about a problem, he raised his hand slowly, palm down, to eye level.
"Do you see my hand?" Bobby asked. "Uh, yeah."
"It's not shaking," he said.
That same day, a crane operator asked Bobby if he should get started on something.
"Did I tell you to start something?" Bobby spoke so quietly that he forced the crane operator to lean in.
"No," the operator replied.
"Do your job," said Bobby. He lit a cigarette, and then he walked off. The crane operator sat back in his seat and spit dip into an empty soda bottle.
Bobby Lee looked like Don Johnson. He wore blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a Western-cut blue denim shirt with a pack of USA Gold cigarettes in each breast pocket. He stood out, because on location everybody else looked the same. Faces hidden behind shaded safety glasses, heads covered by hard hats, the men wore fire-resistant jumpsuits with metallic stripes down the sides. They smoked, chewed dip, or spit sunflower seeds. They wore the same goatees, mustaches, or beards, dirt on their faces and dust in their teeth. They sweat and they cursed, and when they saw my green hard hat—I was a literal greenhorn—they identified me as a dumb fuck. But I couldn't tell any of them apart. Throughout the day, they appeared in bright sunlight in front of me, shouted a few words, and then disappeared back into the dust.
"I just started last week," a fellow greenhorn yelled at me over the din of a truck. "They don't tell you how to do anything. I don't know why. They'd save a lot of time if they told you."
"Don't stand there. Hand me that hook," a truck driver hollered at me. I handed him the hook, and he turned his back to me completely. I stood there for some time staring at his back. Then, unsure of myself, I walked off.
One guy told me to watch out for the crane operator I was working with. "He'll hurt you," he said solemnly.
"Can I throw this chain to you?" a dude asked. "Yeah," I said.
"You ready?" "Yeah," I said.
"You ain't ready," he said, and he threw the chain at me.
I thought of what the Safety Man had told me: "You're gonna be able to tell your grandkids you moved rigs across the Bakken Formation at the height of the North Dakota oil boom." I thought about how much money I was going to make.
On my first day, I had teamed up with another field hand, a young, muscular guy with braces. We rigged a twenty-foot-tall steel structure, called a derrick stand, to a gin truck. For the sake of simplicity, I'll just say right now that a gin truck is a big truck with a small crane on the back. It acts somewhat like a tow truck. We wrapped the chains from the gin truck around the steel structure and stepped away from it.
The driver pulled away, dragging the thing behind him. I followed. "Don't stand under that derrick stand," the driver yelled at me through his window. "That's a dumb fucking obvious thing you shouldn't do. If it tipped you wouldn't get out from under it. How long you work here?"
"Today," I yelled back to him.
"Well, don't stand under the fucking stand."