Carl Wade Thompson, 6/26/2017

Current Occupation: Graduate Programs Writing Tutor
Former Occupation: Janitor/Meat Packer/Waste Disposal/Fork Life Operator
Contact Information: Carl Wade Thompson is a poet and graduate programs writing tutor at Texas Wesleyan University. His work often focuses on his manual labor experiences.

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Once, I Signaled A Crane

    In spring of 2015, I was working a dead-end job at a warehouse distribution center as a member of waste disposal. After being in graduate school for three years and unable to take my comps, I had quit school, moved back home, and started working at the distribution center near my home town. Stuck in a deep depression, the job did not help matters as I saw myself becoming more and more meaningless as time passed by. I wanted a job that would take me away from my hometown and provide meaning in my life. As I scanned the want-ads one night, I saw that there were open interviews for working on an off-shore oil rig. As my uncle had worked on an offshore oil rig and had enjoyed the experience, I decided to try out for an interview. After an interview and physical examination, I was soon driving to Lafayette, Louisiana for training to be an offshore oil rig roustabout for Noble Oil.

    Arriving in Lafayette, the other trainees and I were immediately put on a bus and soon were driving south into the swamp until we arrived at our training camp, which was nearly an hour out into the boonies. The training camp was right beside the bayou and was held in part of an oil rig where we ate and slept with a modular building for a classroom. Beside the modular building was a small crane, which was part of our training. As a person who had been in school for most of his life, most everything there seemed foreign and new as I knew next to nothing about working on an oil rig. As we got off the bus and went into rig sleeping quarters to claim our bunks, I knew the week of training was going to be more challenging than I had ever imagined.

    Over the course of the week, my fellow trainees and I learned about safety guidelines for working offshore and the tasks that would comprise our daily workload. Whether it was learning to always keep a hand on the safety rail while walking on all stairs or how to chain hoist a load of pipe, it was all hands on, where class room instruction met hard application. As the days went by and we learned more about the ins and outs of working on an oil rig, the more I felt like I was over my head. In order to pass the training, you had to take a live test and show you could do all the tasks that we had practiced. But after witnessing the skills of the other students, I knew that I was way behind, because every physical task took me longer to perform, and speed is everything on an oil rig. By the end of Wednesday of the first week, I was sure of failure, and I wasn’t sure what I should do.

    While in the classroom on Wednesday, the coursework turned to working as a crane signalperson. Our instructor, who was a Noble safety officer named David, was a stern teacher who looked like he was more at home in the bayou than in the city. With a deep Cajun accent, every word that came out of his mouth was built on a foundation of Louisiana history. After working for 20 years as an offshore oil rig safety officer, he had seen the worst accidents imaginable, and he taught us as a man who had seen it all. So when we went through the book and he told us about how important a crane signalperson is, I made certain that I listened.

    “Now guys,” David said as we ended for the day, “We will be testing on signaling cranes first thing in the morning. And remember, you only get two tries to pass this test. You don’t get a third chance.”  When he said his last words, I knew he was talking to me, because I felt like I was barely passing as is. As we walked out and headed to the rig housing to have supper, I made up my mind that regardless of what happened for the rest of the training camp, I was going to pass the signaling portion with flying colors.

    After dinner, the evening was free before lights out, and so I went back to the classroom to study my textbook. As I looked at the hand signals, I set out practicing what the images showed. Whether it was signaling how to hoist a load up to lowering the boom, I practiced over and over again, reading the chapter on signaling like my life depended on it. I knew that night that maybe working offshore was not the job for me, but I wanted to at least do one thing well. All my life, the only thing I could do well was reading and writing, my world always being within the confines of school. Just once, I wanted to do something physical and being good at it, have a work skill that translated to manual labor.  Regardless of the outcome, I wanted to do my best to show I could at least do this one thing even if I didn’t pass the rest of the training.

    That night as I slept in my small bunk among the other recruits, I lay awake for a long time. I was worried about the next day, but I was also questioning my resolve to be a roustabout. I was scared of the whole thing, scared of what might happen on the oil rig and how I would hold up in the middle of the ocean while constantly scrambling to carry cable or chipping paint. When I finally went to sleep, I wasn’t sure what I was more worried about, my resolve for sticking with the training or passing the test the next morning.

    Early the next morning after breakfast, we all went outside to demonstrate our crane signaling skills. As I waited for my turn, I was so worried that I started sweating in the cold bayou air. But when I went to stand before the crane and begin my test, I suddenly became calm and collected. All of a sudden, I understood all I had to do was to take my time, think, and signal accordingly.

    “Okay, Wade, signal the crane to hoist it up, slowly,” ordered David.

    Standing as straight as I could, I point my finger straight and made a circular motion with my right palm straight out above it.  Slowly, the crane’s hoist went up and carried a load of pipe. For a moment, time stood still as everyone stared amazed as I performed the motion like the picture in the textbook. It even surprised David, the safety officer, as I had never done anything right the first time.

    “Okay, that’s good,” said David. “Now, direct the crane to move the load to the right.”

    I nodded, never taking the eyes off the crane operator. I took both of my hands, moved my upper torso, and signaled with my hands turned right for the operator to turn the hoist right. I watched as the crane’s hoist moved the load to the right, high overhead.

    “Stop,” said David, his arms folded.

    Raising my rand hand, I made a gloved fist, motioning for the hoist to stop.

    “Hey look at him,” said one of the other trainees. “He’s just like the textbook.  He’s doing it exactly like the pictures in the textbook!”

    Hearing his words, I smiled, knowing I was doing good. And as David directed me to signal other maneuvers, I did so with a skill that none of the other trainees was able to match. Even David, the man who gave praise sparingly, said I had done fine. For once, I passed with flying colors, and for a moment I could picture myself as a signalperson on an oil rig. It was a fleeing moment, that feeling of belonging, like I could actually make it offshore. After the day’s training ended, I knew that I had at least accomplished one thing, something I could take away and make my own. Even if I never signaled a crane again, at least I knew that I could have done it.

    That night in my bunk I thought about the day and what I had accomplished. I was able to do something well, the only time where I had stood out in all the training sessions. And my skill had come from all my studying of my books, which was what I was good at all along. My mind played over the signaling again and again. But I knew, deep down, that I didn’t belong. Finally, as I drifted off to sleep, my mind was made up: I was going to quit the training at morning call.

    The next morning, I went to talk to David and the other instructors and told them my decision. What surprised me was that they said they could understand why I would quit, and it was good to do it now instead of finding out on a rig that I didn’t belong. But the words I took away, that stayed with me the longest, was David’s:

    “You know what, when you first came on, I didn’t think you would make it. Really, I didn’t think a college boy would make it out here. But you really could have made it, got through the training. You proved that yesterday with the crane.”

    I smiled and nodded. His words meant a lot, and I knew that the training hadn’t been a total bust. After I turned in my work gear and collected my duffel bag, David gave me back my Noble hard hat. “Keep it. Something to remember us by.”

    As I was driven out of the training camp, I had no regrets about my decision. Going back home, I straightened out my life and eventually went back to graduate school and obtained my PhD in English. Now an academic and the graduate writing tutor and instructor for a university, I still think back to my time training on the oil rig in the bayou. I still have the hard hat, and my twin sons play with it. Sometimes, I wish I had completed my training and done one stint offshore. But I know, deep down, that the world of the roustabout was not mine, and I am thankful for making the decision to ultimately leave the training.  But whenever I see construction that has a crane, I think, “Once, I signaled a crane.” And that knowledge gives me a sense of peace that makes the decision I made all worthwhile. For that experience I am thankful as it lives on in memory.  

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