The camp sulks at the edge of town, plainly visible from the highway, a cluster of squat barracks fenced off with chain-link. The grounds are paved with macadam. Armed security guards man the gate. Inside the fence are two large dormitories; a third building holds a Laundromat, cafeteria, and gym. The compound resembles, from a distance, a maximum-security community college—an enlightened institution for lepers or convicted killers, men guilty of, or infected with, something lethally bad.
Denny Tilsit is the camp manager, a job he’d wish on no one, though he’s done it twice before, in Wyoming and Dakota. Welcome to nowhere, he tells the new arrivals, and rattles off the rules. No drugs or drinking, no firearms, no females on the premises. They think he’s kidding about that last one, until they get a look around and understand the rule is unnecessary. No female would be caught dead here.
Each dormitory sleeps two hundred. A bedroom is the size of a gas-station restroom, with a cable TV bolted to the ceiling, a narrow bed, and a desk. Each pair of rooms is joined by a shared bathroom—an arrangement known elsewhere as a jack and jill, though in the all-male camp it’s more like a jack and jack, a joke Denny has stopped making. Here you don’t even joke about guys jacking each other. The men are sensitive about that kind of thing.
A dormitory packed with two hundred men, you’d expect it to smell bad. It does, but not the way you’d think. The corridors reek of pesticide and newness, the manufactured smell of trash bags, cheap lawn furniture, Tupperware, balloons. If anyone asked, Denny would explain that the walls are made of plastic, a special polymer that resists mold and warping. The pesticide odor is self-explanatory. But nobody asks.
A name, daybreak, is emblazoned across the towels and sheets, the comforter and pillowcase. Have no doubt who owns that bath mat. Never forget where and whose you are.
Day or night, the corridors are quiet. Always someone is sleeping. The men keep exotic hours. Shifts start at noon, at midnight, at 4:00 p.m., at dawn. The cafeteria, which never closes, serves bacon and eggs at all hours. It’s always breakfast time for someone.
Daybreak LLC is a subsidiary of Darco Energy. The company logo, a stylized sunrise, appears on napkins and dinner plates.
In the hallway outside the cafeteria are four public computers, for the middle-aged and elderly. All the young guys bring their own. The shared computers are used for video chats with wives and children; for checking weather and sports scores; for compulsive bouts of online poker. For porn, though, you’d have to finish yourself off in private. They’re not ideal for porn.
The cafeteria smells of chicken nuggets, twenty-four/seven. Other foods are served, hamburgers and pizza, but the nugget smell dominates. Exhaust fans blow it into the blacktop courtyard; intake fans suck it into the bedrooms. The fans run constantly, a loud rush of air like the camp’s own weather, its sirocco and mistral. The wind carries the camp’s chronic halitosis: plastic and pesticides, chicken nuggets and cigarettes.
A girl in California cavorts before a webcam, at least she says it’s California. It could be Saskatoon or Gary, Indiana, any place with tanning beds.
No jills in the camp, no jills whatsoever. A secretary helps Denny in the front office, a local woman named Brenda Hoff. She is fifty and squat as a dishwasher; her eyes bulge froggily. Brenda Hoff is not sexy, has never heard of sexy. Still the men find excuses to stop by the office, an anthropology lesson, as though Brenda Hoff is, quite literally, the last woman on earth.
It could be Riga or Bangkok or Mexico City. Any place with board-certified plastic surgeons, or their unlicensed equivalent.
The game room has a pool table, couches, and another TV, in case you get tired of watching your own. Men sit talking and smoking. The new arrivals watch baseball; the veterans have given up on baseball. They are men who’d rather be sleeping, insomniacs winding down from their shifts.
The middle-aged and elderly finish themselves off in private.
The Laundromat smells of chicken nuggets and detergent, the twenty-pound boxes of soap powder the camp provides.
* * * *
In town there are whispers, unholy rumors. The security guards speak with southern accents. The supply vans have out-of-state plates.
The camp is full of illegal Mexicans, army deserters, Afghan terrorists from Gitmo. Armed marshals escort the prisoners to work. The chain-link fence hums with high-voltage current. The security guards have orders to shoot on sight.
The camp is a hotbed of drugs and prostitution. Local girls are scouted for this purpose, recruited and hired by Brenda Hoff. Girls arrive by the half dozen, at all hours, crowded into a Mercedes: a six-pack of prostitutes, provocatively dressed.
The men are white separatists, mercenaries, paramilitary. The camp is protected by its own militia, the fence built to keep the world out. The men’s needs are serviced by licensed contractors. Supply vans come and go. The camp’s trash is carted away to a secret incinerator. Even its shit is proprietary: the toilets drain into a private septic system somewhere on the grounds.
The prostitutes are kept in a bunker beneath the building. This explains why they are never seen.
* * * *
It is backbreaking work, punishing to the body. There are no soft jobs on a drill rig. A mud motor weighs six hundred pounds. The hoisting system uses steel rope. The men yank and drag and push and pull. Twelve hours a day they hump and heave. Some work injured, numbed by painkillers. After twelve hours they’d rather sleep than drink or eat or talk to their families. With a few youthful exceptions, they would rather sleep than fuck.
They are well paid, naturally. A high school dropout can earn six figures if he is strong and willing. If nothing goes very wrong. Now sleeping is the Bravo crew—the first tour, or most of it: Mickey Phipps the tool pusher, Vince Legrand the derrick man, the roughnecks Brando and Jorge. Their rig manager, who makes more money, has decamped to the Days Inn. For months Herc was a vibrant complainer—the thin towels and acrid coffee, the nugget smell. The public service announcements on every flat surface, framed posters of drill rigs, the company slogan: S.A.F.E. (STAY ACCIDENT FREE EVERYDAY) DRILLING.
It’s not even English, he’d grumble. What kind of pidgin language is that?
No one else comments on the posters. They grouse about the food, their knees and backs. Except for Mickey Phipps, who is Christian, they complain about the dearth of women—even
Brando, who is known to have solved that problem. For him, for all of them, horniness is a conversation starter, a neutral topic like baseball. They spend half their time working, half exactly: seven days a week, twelve-hour shifts. When the shift ends, second tour comes to relieve them. The drilling literally never stops.
Who has time for baseball, with its long season? For the spectator, it is a demanding sport.
They work two weeks straight, then pack their bags. The camp is for on-duty workers only. Other men need those beds. The company runs a free shuttle to the Pittsburgh airport, where Mickey Phipps catches a flight to Houston. The others keep the local bartenders busy, and find somewhere to sleep off their liquor—in a woman’s bed if they’re lucky, on Herc’s floor at the Days Inn if they’re not.
Brando is always lucky.
Back at the camp, Denny Tilsit guards the schedule. It’s his own private nightmare, summarized on a detailed spreadsheet: room numbers, arrivals and departures, cleaning crews in and out. When the men return, others will have slept in their beds, watched their televisions, shaved at their sinks. To Herc, the rig manager, it’s another argument in favor of the Days Inn.
What does he care? says Jorge. They clean the room so good I can’t tell the difference.
It’s four-thirty in the morning, and the men assemble sack lunches in the pantry behind the kitchen. The camp provides bread and cold cuts for this purpose, industrial-size jars of mustard and mayonnaise.
Seriously, man. They change the sheets and shit. What does he care?
Jorge is twenty-four and caffeinated, unbothered by waking in the dark. The others are silent and irritable. Brando lights a cigarette. Vince Legrand swallows Motrin for his back.
Mickey Phipps, who is Christian, does not comment. The truth, he knows, is harder and simpler: Herc doesn’t want to leave Pennsylvania every two weeks, doesn’t want to fly back to his wife in Texas. He’s happy right where he is, or not happy. Anyway, he doesn’t want to go home.
* * * *
The morning is dim and moonless. First tour starts at five. A convoy of pickup trucks rolls down Number Nine Road, past a few scattered houses, still dark at this hour. Up and down the Dutch Road, dogs begin to bark.
The drill site, Fetterson 2H, glows in the distance, lit up like a stadium at night. Herc’s company truck is already there, parked behind the operator’s trailer; a magnetic sign—STREAM SOLUTION—stuck to the driver-side door. He sits on the hood drinking coffee from a Days Inn cup. Jorge and Legrand park on either side.
In the trailer they gear up—safety goggles, hard hats—and climb the hundred some-odd stairs. The rig floor is a platform suspended in midair, at the height of a three-story building. As he does each morning, Jorge reads aloud: DANGER HIGH VOLTAGE. WARNING HIGH NOISE LEVEL HEARING PROTECTION REQUIRED.
The signs are Herc’s pet peeve, one his crew has picked up on. There are signs on the railings and catwalk and V-door, signs in the trailers, the doghouse, the john.
NOTICE AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY
ADVISO SOLAMENTA PERSONAL AUTORIZADO
It’s a petty complaint; Herc knows this. He understands that his irritation is out of all proportion, and yet he can’t help himself. The signs offend him personally: the bright colors, the capital letters. The repetition in English and Spanish, as in the educational television his kids watched when they were small.
By six the sun is up, the air warming. The Bravo crew is tripping pipe. According to procedure it takes five men to change a drill bit, five men to pull the drill string from the hole. The actual truth is somewhat different. Three joints of drilling pipe weigh more than a pickup truck, and yet the floor hands, Brando and Jorge, do all the lifting. This is true of racking pipe, true of most things. A drill rig is a hierarchy like the rest of the world.
The trip goes smoothly, it would seem to the only observers, the darting barn swallows, the numberless gnats rising in clouds. Seen from above, the men are larger than birds and bugs, but only a bit larger. A drill rig isn’t scaled for humans. Like a sailor on an aircraft carrier, a roughneck crossing the catwalk looks aphid-size.
Legrand leans out from the monkey board and throws a line around the pipe.
The roughnecks are both strong: Brando tall and wiry, Jorge low and heavy. It takes all their combined force to swing the kelly over the rat hole and unhook the swivel bale from the hook. They attach the elevator to the pipe and step back, panting, like boxers at the bell.
While they catch their breath, Mickey steps into the booth and grabs the joystick. The hoisting system kicks in, raising the pipe from the hole. One, two, three joints clear the opening. Then another scramble as Brando and Jorge set the slips. With tongs and a spinning wrench, they break off three joints’ worth. A hundred feet above their heads, Legrand fits the top end into the fingerboard. A satisfying clank as they drop the pipe in the mast.
The trip completed, Herc calls a coffee break. The men are feeling conversational. Like women in a beauty parlor they stand around yakking. Brando ignores their chitchat, tedious shit about Mickey’s kids, a caper involving Legrand and a waitress in the next town over. There’s always a waitress in the next town over. Figments, possibly, of Legrand’s drunken imagination, this army of waitresses no one has ever seen.
There are ten times more signs than there used to be, though only Herc has been around long enough to note the difference. This rig, brand-new, is particularly rich in reading material. New OSHA regulations? A punishing lawsuit, more costly than previous lawsuits?
WARNING NO ENTRY WITHOUT SUPERVISOR
DANGER PINCH POINT
Herc has yet to see a sign that tells the simple truth: of all the calamities that can happen on a drill rig, falling is the likeliest. The easiest way to kill yourself is simply missing a step. He has seen up close what a three-story fall can do to a body. He’d do anything to wipe that picture from his mind.
It’s a truth most people never have to learn, that the human body is simply a bag of blood.
From HEAT AND LIGHT by Jennifer Haigh. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2016 by Jennifer Haigh.