Salt of Summit County:Mental toughness during oil boom
December 30, 2008
Long-time residents will remember the heyday of drilling in the 1980s that employed local people and flooded tax coffers.
Dean Schulte, award-winning Coalville taxidermist, remembers those days well and did work on an oil well service rig for two and a half years that changed his life.
An explosion gave him permanent burn damage in 1987 and forced a welcome career change.
Schulte remembers the work as "ridiculous" and says he can relate to the people working on crab boats in the popular television shows about Alaskan fishing. He too worked in conditions in which he was always cold, never comfortable and never free from serious danger.
He started in the mid-1980s after moving down from Montana and was unable to find work as a machinist. A regular hand on an oil rig could make as much as an engineer. A job requiring nothing more than a high school diploma could pay $80,000 a year.
He usually left his house around 6 a.m. 4 if the job was in Wyoming and worked on a crew that followed the drillers to install wells and make them produce. Sometimes the sites were so remote the commute would include a 14 mile drive on a dirt road.
Even on good days, he never knew how many hours he’d put in. Nobody went home until the day’s work was complete.
"You weren’t done till they said you were done," he said.
If you got sick of the work and quit on the job, or were fired, there was no ride home.
There was much less regulation in those days, Schulte said, and the companies got away with antics that would never be allowed today. He recalls a colleague being told to climb on top of an oil rig, where natural gas was spewing out, to thaw out an hydraulic manifold with a propane torch.
Much of his own job probably wouldn’t be allowed today.
He would stand 60 feet up in the air on a derelict and people on the ground would string equipment up to him. He had no protection from the wind and if the job went into the night, the only lighting available was the truck head lamps. Balancing from the wind, hands numb from the cold, he’d try to catch equipment coming at him at high speeds backlit from car lights.
That was nothing compared to what he experienced during the winter of 1986-87.
The oil boom was waning and companies were cutting costs anyway they could. Any measures taken for the safety or comfort of the workers was eliminated.
During one particularly difficult job that lasted seven days, he went home every day swearing it would be his last, and then got up in the morning and went back to work.
"They made us function in a Spartan way," he said. "Every night I’d go home with a high level of anxiety. It was a head game. I wanted to say, ‘This is ridiculous.’ But I’m not a quitter."
Every day that week was 30 degrees below zero and he sat up in his spot 50 feet off the ground with no protection from the wind. If he got down, he’d be fired and probably be out of the oil business for good.
Schulte called it a "state of suspended cold" in which his hands and feet never got warm.
"Sometimes my hands were a gnat’s breath from getting frost bite," he recalled. "It was survival of the fittest."
Making it through each day and going back to work in the morning took mental toughness. Even during normal winter conditions, he said he wanted to quit two or three times a month. He kept reminding himself how good the money was.
With what Schulte called a "John Wayne mentality," he’d tell himself that somebody had to do the work, and it might as well be him. As a young man, he said, he put up with whatever conditions were forced upon him because he was too tough to complain.
A lot of his co-workers dealt with the stress and strain with narcotics. They took so many so often that they were able to function normally while under their influence, but it still added an extra element of danger.
If water spewing from the well got a worker wet, there was no where to change clothes. Even if a trailer was on site, there was no guarantee he wouldn’t just get wet again.
Even when a site had a propane heater, it regularly ran out of fuel. Workers stuck their fingers into the trucks’ exhaust pipes to fight off frostbite.
Underground water was under pressure and kept spilling up as his crew attempted to plug the well with concrete.
One guy would have to get completely doused every time the well was opened, and with only slickers, everyone else usually ended up wet by the end of the day.
"(On TV) you see those guys on the crab boats doing weird shit and (when doing it) you just seem to survive it," he said. "You just did it, you made it through. That was the worst experience of surviving every day, but we were just expected to do it."
The job was so tough on clothing, that it was often easier to just buy new outfits at Deseret Industries than try to clean or repair anything. Clothing was "thrashed and throttled," he said.
The oil would eat away the soles on a brand new pair of boots within two months.
When oil is pumped out of the ground, a lot of paraffin wax comes up with it. That means at the end of the day their clothes were soaked with oil and wax.
"It was a joke to go to the laundry mat. We’d wash the clothes two or three times and we’d still see smoke coming up out of the dryers."