The Roughneck Diaries

Remembering when the oil sands were young

Photograph by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

I moved to Calgary in the fall of 1970, when there were fewer than 400,000 people and Alberta was still governed by Social Credit, a party built on the beliefs of a Baptist radio preacher. The city was run by oil and gas, but it was all conventional reserves then. Suncor (then Sun Oil) was only a few years into production at Fort McMurray, and much of the industry still viewed the oil sands as an expensive folly.

In early June 1973, after my second year of university, a friend and I trudged around town filling out applications for oil field jobs until a receptionist told us we were wasting our time; we needed to go to the source. She pointed to a stack of unexamined CVs on her desk. Medicine Hat, she told us, was the promised land. That’s where they were drilling for gas. The next day, we drove east. Steel derricks were visible, tall on the prairie. At the foot of the first one we approached, a man sat on a forty-gallon oil drum, his hand bandaged, his jeans stained with blood. Behind him was a blackboard with the message, “This rig has worked 0 accident-free days.” Even that wasn’t enough to overcome our lack of experience.

After two days of talking to uninterested drillers, we found work on a rig drilling shallow gas wells forty kilometres outside Medicine Hat. The two-man crew hadn’t shown up, and it was three hours into the afternoon shift. “I guess you girls will have to do,” the driller said. My life as a roughneck had begun.

The work was dirty, dangerous, and exhausting. It took me a while to find a rhythm; when pulling the pipe to change a worn-out bit, I’d throw in the steel slips to keep the pipe from falling down the hole, then use the tongs—essentially two giant wrenches dangling on chains—to unscrew the pipe, lay the pipe down, pull up the next one. I worked for hours without looking up. Some days, the heat climbed above thirty degrees, hotter near the engines. I bought salt pills and brought a gallon of water to every shift to fight dehydration. After work, it took thirty minutes in the shower to get clean.

My friend went back to Calgary after a few weeks, but I stayed on, drawn by the money and the odd sense of romance that came with driving back from the afternoon shift at 1 a.m. in a pick-up truck while listening to Merle Haggard. I stop at the twenty-four-hour Husky restaurant to eat steak and eggs, trying to impress the waitress with what I hoped was a gritty masculine persona, instead of the effete air of the English major I had affected only weeks before.

The driller’s name was Joe, a man in his late forties with a thinning pompadour and as mean as a snake. On the way home from every shift, he’d knock back two or three warm beers and fling the empties out the window so they would land on the highway behind us. Then he’d check the rear-view to watch them break. We mostly drilled in semi-desert, but occasionally we worked on farmland. The oil company leased acreages from farmers, and one night Joe got in his truck and drove in circles, flattening all the crops within the lease parameters. “We’re paying for it,” he reasoned. One farmer witnessed this senseless destruction and rushed from his house with a .22-calibre rifle, putting two bullets in Joe’s truck. “Excitable son of a bitch,” Joe said, standing on the drilling floor, taking a drag on his cigarillo beneath an oversized No Smoking! sign.

I stayed at the Corona Hotel, a bleak terminus that charged $35 a week, and ate most meals at a Chinese restaurant that served hot turkey sandwiches. The heat in my room that summer was unbearable. I left the door open one afternoon to try to get some air and fell asleep. When I woke up, an emaciated prostitute in her forties was sitting on the end of the bed wearing cowboy boots and smoking a cigarette.

“You looking for a date? ” she asked.


“I could have just taken your wallet.”

I nodded and gave her five dollars and she left and I locked the door.

We drilled some holes out near Suffield, west of Medicine Hat, on the largest military training base in the Commonwealth. The Canadian government had just leased most of it to the British Army, and in July a tank regiment fired its first live rounds. On a graveyard shift, I heard the sound of a shell whistling through the air then a muted explosion somewhere to the north. A few minutes later, there was another one, closer this time. I walked back to the rig. Joe stood on the drilling floor, looking north.

“Limey bastards,” he said. “They’re finding their range.”

He told me to get in his truck and go to the barracks and tell those idiots that if they hit this rig, they buy it. I drove to the front gate and talked to a man in uniform with close-cropped hair and a Clark Gable moustache.

“Those shells are getting pretty close out there,” I said.

He nodded. “Who are you, exactly? ”

I explained that I was a roughneck and we were drilling for gas. The first he’d heard of it, he said, and picked up a field phone and called off the attack.

Work on the rig was seven days a week, and my summer was a combination of environmental calamity (sparking a prairie fire, leaving chemical-filled sumps), safety violations (smoking over the wellhead), big paycheques, and mournful country music.

When I told Joe I would be going back to university in September, he said, “I don’t imagine you’ll be too hard to replace.” He was divorced by that time, sleeping in his truck, hammered by noon. With my money from the rigs, I bought a second-hand Ford Econoline van, a three-area season ski pass, and a pair of banana-coloured Nordica ski boots—an oil man throwing his money around.

I went back to the fields the following summer. The driller this time was Davis, ex-military, a hard-ass in his forties who cut off the sleeves of his cowboy shirts and drove a Camaro. In August, during a graveyard shift pulling pipe out of the hole at 3 a.m., my hand was smashed by the break-out tongs. I eased my glove off slowly, worried my hand would still be in it. A bloody mess, though nothing was broken. The toolpush reluctantly drove me to the hospital in Medicine Hat, more than an hour away.

The night nurse looked at my hand and phoned the doctor who was on call. While we were waiting, two men came in. One of them had an arrow sticking out of his leg. The nurse looked at them with weary familiarity. “You going to tell me what happened here, Bobby,” she said.

“Daryl was being ignorant,” said the unpierced Bobby.

The nurse nodded and wrote something on a pad. “Take a seat, boys.”

When the doctor finally arrived a half-hour later, he was cinematically drunk, like Dudley Moore in Arthur. He told me to wash my left hand in the sink and wrap it in gauze; then he poured half a bottle of aspirin into my right, most of the pills bouncing onto the floor. Two days later, I was driving my unreliable van back to Calgary with an infected hand that looked like a ski mitt, heading to the emergency ward for treatment and antibiotics.

I healed and returned, and was given a hockey stick that had a gas-soaked flaming rag attached to the blade and told to walk to the end of a flare pipe where gas was coming out and reach the stick out to ignite the gas and flare it off. The gas caught fire, an ephemeral burst that settled into a steady flame, lighting up the prairie night.

In my third year of university I had an unusually long Christmas break. All my exams were scheduled early, so I spent three weeks working on a rig near Brooks, 190 kilometres southeast of Calgary. It was early December, and temperatures sometimes dropped to twenty-five degrees below. The drilling floor had a canvas windbreak but was otherwise exposed. We were on graveyards that first week, and the four-man crew all drove out from Brooks, crammed into a Mustang. The drive was two hours. Each night, Vern, the driller, designated someone to buy a bottle for the way there. The first two nights, the guys each bought a bottle of rye and two giant bottles of Coke. We never broached the issue of drinking and driving on icy roads in the dark and then operating wildly dangerous rig machinery. When it was my turn to buy, I bought a bottle of Scotch and no mix because I thought it was buyer’s choice. This betrayal resulted in stunned disbelief that anyone could be so goddamn stupid; it tasted like cat piss and there might not have been a stupider choice in the entire liquor store. If I was going to university in order to get stupider then I was sure as hell on the right track.

That night, it was so cold that my gloves froze to the spinning chain, the bête noire of the roughneck, the place where fingers are lost. I pulled my hand out of the glove just before it hit the pipe, saving my fingers. The other roughneck, a local guy my age, was standing on the other side of the pipe with his head down. The spinning chain whipped around and hit him on the crown of his hard hat, and he collapsed on the drilling floor. He sat stunned for a minute, then got up and came at me, fists windmilling. I was wearing a hard hat, too, and five layers of clothing: his punches barely registered. We fought on the drilling floor while Vern smoked a cigarette then finally flicked his butt into the darkness and said, “Okay, girls, dance is over, back to work.”

It was still dark when the morning shift came to relieve us at 8 a.m. Then it was back to what was left of the deeply resented Scotch for the near-silent drive home. I was so cold that I spent forty minutes under a hot shower, trying to warm up.

Three weeks later I was back at university, settling into a warm classroom beside pretty girls in Save the Whales T-shirts, sleepily listening to a professor list the enduring merits of The Waste Land.

Every fall I returned to school with far more money than my classmates who had waited tables or painted houses. Yet by spring that oil wealth would vanish, every summer a boom, every winter a bust. After I graduated from university, I worked 100 straight days on a rig operating south of Calgary. With my first paycheque, I bought a plane ticket to Europe.

That crew was probably the oldest in the oil patch. Arnold, the driller, was in his late fifties and was the youngest by a decade. There was an old farmer who had a face like W. H. Auden, and an elderly alcoholic derrick man who climbed the sixty feet up to the derrick platform slowly and shakily and with what my undergraduate sensibility interpreted as a sense of fatalism. The motorman was called Old Dad, a diminutive senior who looked like Doc from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with his permanently rosy cheeks and round spectacles.

In the deepening gloom of November, Arnold told us that his wife had bought a record called Super Sobbers, which she listened to obsessively, weeping by the turntable. He came home one day and took it off and threw it against the wall. She bought another copy; he broke it. She bought ten copies. This escalation preoccupied him and prompted long discussions among the crew about women and what exactly they were after. The derrick man told us he’d returned home from an epic bender a decade earlier to find his wife gone, along with every stick of furniture and even the curtains. “I guess she was trying to tell me something,” he said.

Arnold looked like a troll out of a fairy tale—slightly hunched, ropy muscles, wart plagued, dour. His earlier career had been spent in a meat-packing plant, stunning cattle with a captive bolt gun. “The old lady wants to be sad. I’ll give her something to be sad about,” he said. “I can find another wife.” He listed his attributes on his fingers: “Steady paycheque, working truck, never home.” Pretty tough for any woman to pass up. Plus, he said, he was working in an industry that was the future.

It wasn’t my future, though, and when my 100 days were up, I left them to their romantic woes and flew to Spain to pursue dark-haired, spectacularly uninterested Spanish beauties. Steeped in Hemingway, Spain held a special allure. On my last day, the derrick man had advised me to marry a woman who didn’t speak English. “Solves a lot of problems,” he said.

I thought I was done with oil, but when I returned from Europe six months later, I was broke, my own economic cycle dependent on the industry’s. I didn’t want to go back to the rigs. By then, I had decided to become a writer and was convinced I would lose a finger in the spinning chain.

I found work as a mud logger, and after rudimentary training, I went out into the field. My job was to capture samples of what the rig was drilling through. I’d bring them back to my trailer and mix them up in an industrial Waring blender and apply a test to determine if there was oil or gas. The roughnecks in our camps fought and ate competitively; one guy ate thirteen pork chops. Someone always insisted on playing his guitar. It was a grim, overwhelmingly masculine landscape.

Coming back from a job in northern Alberta in the company’s three-quarter-ton truck, I drove for twelve hours and began to feel drowsy. It was after midnight, and I wanted to charge through to Calgary. I had a co-worker with me, a woman who had just started and had come up to learn the ropes. I asked if she was okay to drive.

“If you’re not, it’s not a problem,” I said. “We’ll just pull over, and I’ll have a quick nap.”

She was good, she said. Wide awake.

She started driving, and I immediately fell asleep in the passenger seat, without putting on my seat belt. I was shaken awake by tires flinging gravel. She had dozed off, driven into a ditch, and hit the gas instead of the brake. I opened my eyes to see the berm where a section of road met the highway, a six-foot pile of dirt. We crashed into it, and my head slammed into the dashboard. But we had enough speed to sheer over that hurdle; we launched skyward then landed like a dart, and my head hit the windshield. The brief, wild violence stopped. There wasn’t a sound. It was 2 a.m. I sat stunned for a few minutes before assessing the wreckage.

The truck was an accordioned writeoff. I examined my face in the rear-view mirror. It was covered in blood, but the cuts were superficial. My teeth were intact, nothing was broken—a surprise. My co-worker wasn’t doing so well. Her face had hit the steering wheel, and there was a deep semicircular gash above one eye. The doors were crumpled shut, so I climbed out through the window and pulled the woman out with great difficulty. She was in shock. Her breathing was shallow. I looked around. The truck was partly hidden from traffic because of the berm. I had no idea where we were. I walked the twenty steps to the highway and tried to flag a car down. My shirt was covered in blood, hers and mine; my face swelled to Elephant Man proportions.

We were north of Red Deer on Highway 2, as it turned out. There wasn’t much traffic, and no one stopped. After thirty minutes, a couple finally pulled over and picked us up and took us to the hospital. My co-worker stayed for almost a week, but I was released in the morning. I phoned the company, and they said they’d send someone to pick me up. I gave them the name of a nearby restaurant and went there to get some breakfast.

My face was swollen and bloody, and my clothes were a mess, though the waitress didn’t say, Tough night, huh, or anything. She took my order and returned ten minutes later with my bacon and eggs. It was hard to eat—a messy, unfortunate spectacle. The company guy took four hours to cover the 145 kilometres from Calgary, so I had time to assess my life in oil. On the whole, it didn’t seem to be working out. Amid the stares of hostile Red Deer diners, I resolved to move east.

This appeared in the December 2015 issue.

Don Gillmor
Don Gillmor’s book To the River  won the Governor General’s Award for nonfiction.