In 1964, Elvis Presley starred in a movie titled: Roustabout.
That might be the best connection many of you might have with the word, but Presley wasn’t really a roustabout … he was more of a carnie. In the film, he works with a carnival; in real life … an oil field worker’s life … a roustabout is one of the lowest and dirtiest jobs you could have.
I know because I spent some time doing that job … and in my life as a roustabout, there was no singing and certainly no pretty girls.
In fact, if my time as a roustabout had been like Presley’s, I might have made that a career.
My Dad worked hard in the oil fields of West Texas, and when I became 16, he got me a job as a roustabout.
The first day, we didn’t do much … just rode around on a truck, checking on electrical pumps at various locations. Occasionally, we had to tear a pump open and repack the seals. I got my hands dirty, but at the end of the day, while washing my hands with a degreaser, I was thinking, Hey, this isn’t such a tough job.
Well, the next day — things changed.
We had to “crow bar” a section of oil field pipe.
The tubing was connected and ran for maybe a quarter of a mile. Our orders were to move about 100 yards of the pipe about 25 yards to the West.
I know it sounds confusing if you don’t understand what I just wrote, and if you did, it sounds, stupid.
Basically, four of us began sliding our crow bars under the pipe and then raising the bars so the pipe moved in the direction we wanted. It only moved maybe a foot. Then we moved down the pipe and did it again. We repeated that action the length of the pipe we were to move and then started over. Bending down, sliding the crow bar under the pipe, standing, pulling the crow bar up and hoisting the tubing to a new spot … over and over … work 100 yards down the pipe and start over.
Even though the pipe was connected, we could get this long section to “bend and curve” so finally, we had moved that 100 yard section about 25 yards.
Now, why it had to be moved … especially using that back breaking tactic instead of uncoupling the pipe, dragging it with a truck and putting in connecting pipe … I have no idea.
Other than, it was a job for a roustabout. (I will say this, it was good training for the Marines … don’t question the order, just do it.)
Another time, a couple of us were left at site and ordered to clean out the sludge in the bottom of an oil tank.
When the oil was pumped from a tank, there was always a thick, nasty 2 to 4 inch residue of oil sludge left behind.
We were to crawl through a small opening, and go inside with something like a combo rake and hoe and start tugging, pushing, pulling on the sludge and then lifting it into a bucket so it could be dumped outside. Of course the dump spot was always several yards away.
This was not just a nasty job, it was a dangerous job, and this was done before OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) was created in 1970.
There’s no doubt the oil sludge was toxic, and we weren’t supposed to stay in the tank very long … not only because of the sludge, but the West Texas summer heat which would build up inside the tank.
We had one mask which wasn’t really a gas mask, it just covered your eyes and nose, and “maybe” filtered some of the fumes.
So, the plan was … one of us would put on the mask and go inside the tank to work; we would tie a rope around our waist and the other roustabout would stay outside. From time to time, the guy outside would yank on the rope and the guy inside would yank back, proving he was still conscious.
My partner that day was one of the laziest guys I had ever met. Anytime we stopped anywhere, he found a place to sit, maybe even stretch out and could go to sleep within seconds.
So, we start to work; I’m in the tank and then I’m outside and then I’m back in the tank.
The day got longer and hotter and then I’m in the tank and I’m getting a little nauseous, and I’m thinking that guy hasn’t yanked on the rope in a long time to check on me. So, I yank on the rope. No response. I yank again. No response.
Now, I’m really getting light headed and start for the opening, but I’m slipping and falling in the sludge.
Finally, I get to out the opening, yank off my mask and gulp in air, feeling a little better.
To the side of the tank, in the shade, is my partner … dead.
Dead to the world.
Dad once told me about a couple of guys he hired to be roustabouts for a day.
He went into a little West Texas town and found the guys sitting at a bar. He offered them a job, and the money was good enough to entice them.
They climbed into his truck and he drove them about 30 miles outside town to an oil tank farm.
He walked them over to one of the tanks and told them they were to scrape out the sludge.
Once they say what the job was … what it would involve, they both said, Mister, this isn’t the job I was expecting.
They said they weren’t going to do the job.
Knowing Dad, I’m sure he was about to punch both of them, but he told me that he smiled and said, Guy’s I’m sorry. My fault. I should have been clear about the job.
He offered them cigarettes which they quickly took and then said, I’m sorry, but I left my Zippo in the car. I’ll go get it.
These guys stood there with cigarettes dangling from their lips as Dad went back to the car, got in … and drove off.