I Come from Loo-see-ana With a Bandaid on My Knee

I never really think about the danger that is inherit with our line of work. If I think about it at all, I file it under adventure – not fear.

The crewboat (look closely on right) did not wait around to see if we made it safely back to the rig on the personnel carrier.

Except lately a couple of things have brought it strongly to my attention. First, a photography husband and wife team (similar to Chris and I) was killed recently in a fiery airplane crash in some god-forsaken part of the planet. We had met the likeable couple at a photo seminar several years back and greatly admired their work. They were partners professionally as well as personally for many years. Assignments regularly took them to remote parts of the globe. They loved their work and would do just about anything to get-the-shot. And all of the above thoughts were starting to sound spookily close to home. Secondly, I was hurt on what should have been an easy assignment in Louisiana recently. And third, we just applied for new life insurance.

I was really surprised at the number of red flags our lifestyle raised on the life insurance forms. You know the ones – the dreaded “if yes, please explain” questions. For example:

Q: Do you travel/work overseas?
A: Yeah! Lucky us!

Q: Do you travel/work in countries that the US State Department has listed as restricted/hostile/dangerous?
A: Yes, but we’re really really careful.

Q: Do you fly in helicopters and/or non-commercial airplanes?
A: How else do you get to the middle of the jungle or swamp or ocean? (I didn’t tell them about flying with the doors off and holding on to Chris’ belt as he leaned out to shoot).

Q: Do you work on offshore oilrigs? Chemical refineries? Nuclear plants? Prisons?
A: (Have these guys been following us around?)
Well, yeah, that’s where we spend a lot of our time – and sure, things blow-up every once in a while (twice it’s happened the day after we left); once we were there when a guy got his leg chopped off in an oilrig accident; and Chris did set off the radiation detector in the nuclear plant – but the radiation tech gave the gauge a big thwack with his fist and the indicator dropped below the red zone (we figured 4 kids were enough anyway); and the prison riot occurred the day before we got there. So no real problems.

Thank goodness they didn’t ask:
Q: Do you ever swing in a bucket hung on a crane hook hundreds of feet in the air?
A: Yes, regularly. A crane bucket is a great way to get an aerial shot (and a cheap thrill) when a helicopter is not available.

For some reason, Chris was the only one playing with the razor wire at the prison.
I’ve never met a crane operator that wasn’t totally crazy. They sleep most of the time on the job and get their kicks by scaring people. But a crane bucket spin is like riding the Disneyland TeaCups compared to the Killer Roller Coaster that is an offshore personnel carrier. You stand on the OUTSIDE of the personnel carrier basket and hold on (for dear life) to the cargo net as it takes you up and out over the ocean 150 or more feet below – and don’t forget to take the rise and fall of the boat bobbing in the water into consideration when planning your dismount!

We’ve been lucky. We’ve stayed healthy on the road for the most part - besides the 4 days we were holed-up sick as dogs in Buenos Aires (watched the Super Bowl in español); my bout with the Asian flu in Malaysia (what other kind would it be?); and Chris’ food poisoning that landed him in the emergency room (I told him not to eat that fish). There is nothing worse than being on the road and really sick. We conscientiously work hard at staying safe and healthy. We have to, because as soon as you let your guard down for one second. . .

Case in point: an assignment in South Louisiana. We love it there. The Cajun people know good food means good times. The men (including my Louisiana-born Chris) love to cook as much as the women do. Cajuns get excited by great food just like their French counterparts, but are welcoming and down-to-earth as the Italians – our kinda folk!

It was mid-morning in mid-August in the middle of South Louisiana when it happened. Sweat was trickling down my back already. We were on an oilrig waiting for the crew to finish the assembly of the drill string (yawn). I was hungry (duh) and therefore easily distracted from my work. My hunger and distraction were exacerbated as I eavesdropped on an animated conversation between two Cajun oil workers. They were arguing the finer points of frying turkeys whole.

Cajuns lay claim to the invention of whole fried turkeys and I believe them. The recipe has all the earmarks of South Louisiana cooking style: It’s unique, showy, delicious, highly fattening and is designed to feed a horde of friends and family. I’ve never seen an authentic Cajun recipe that wouldn’t easily satisfy at least 12 really hungry people.

You begin the turkey frying process by ‘medicating’ the bird using an elephant sized hypodermic needle. Next, inject the turkey repeatedly with a tangy mixture of liquid seasonings, plunging the needle in all over the poor naked bird’s body. Then lower the plumped-up carcass into a tub of boiling oil, where it happily bobs around for an hour or so. It was the ‘or so’ part of the recipe that was the subject of the conversation I was straining to hear. I was intently but covertly following the discussion when the injury happened.

Thibideaux: No, no, che. Dah bird, she swim one hour - no less, no mo.

LeBlanc: I telled yew 3-2 time already! Why you no hear? Dah big mawmoo gobblers, day likes to dawdle in dah oil bath, slow ’n lazy-like. One hour and half again hour be mo bedda, dont-yew-know.

This simmering culinary debate really heated up when several other roughnecks-cum-Cajun-chefs decided to stir the pot by peppering the discourse with their own half-baked opinions. Voices and tempers quickly rose to the boiling point.

It was at this precise moment I made my attempt to gain a better listening vantage point, and made a rookie-roughneck mistake. I’ve been climbing all over oilrigs for the better part of 20 years and I knew better: I moved without first glancing down at my feet to see if my path was clear.

Active drilling platforms are strewn with a shifting minefield of sharp, very heavy objects of all shapes and sizes, creating a treacherous maze that must be plotted and navigated with care. The hardhat, steel-toed boots, safety glasses and earplugs they make you wear are not just a fashion statement. It’s a dangerous place.

To make matters worse, the drill floor and everything on it can get covered with an extremely slimy, slippery substance which is used as a lubricant to help the drill-bit and other big tools slide easily in and out of the hole. Think K-Y Jelly (as if you weren’t already). It’s known as drilling mud by those in the ‘awl bidnez’ and once it gets on your clothing, it’s there for life.

I had on a brand new pair of jeans that day. I know what you’re thinking, but please keep it to yourself – I feel stupid enough already and besides I’ll never hear the end of this from Chris. That morning, pulling on his tattered and tacky old jeans, he told me I was crazy to wear anything new to a rigsite. So I of course puffed up and ignored his advice.

Distracted by the turkey conversation I stumbled, striking my leg on something unnaturally hard, which immediately opened up a gash in my new jeans and my old knee. In the process I lost my hardhat, safety glasses and my pride. As is typical with my work, I was the only woman in an EXTREMELY macho infested environment. Being a product of the bra-burning, equal-rights, women’s-lib 1960s, I take the role of standard-bearer for my gender seriously. I was physically hurt, but worse, I was humiliated.

The testosterone population south of the Mason/Dixon (don’t stop at the U.S. border, keep going all the way south to Tierra del Fuego) seems to have a particularly hard time figuring out how to act around me on the jobsite. I’m subjected to an inbred cultural chivalry that makes them insist on carrying my equipment even though they visibly resent me invading their turf. They expect me to fall – even secretly hope I’ll fall. If Chris had stumbled, they would have glanced at him to make sure he was OK, and that would be it.

Sad proof that married couples really do start to look alike ove the years. Us in full PPE (Personal Protection Equipment). We climbed this 20 story cooling tower in predawn darkest to get sunrise photos of the plant. Singapore 2001.
In my case, all other activity on the rig ceased and twenty mud soaked hands reached down to help me finish the job of ruining my clothes which I had so spectacularly begun a moment before. I shrugged off their concerns (and their muddy mitts). I was too embarrassed to feel any pain (until later) and would have died before admitting it anyway.

Back in the hotel room that night, I gingerly removed my now worthless clothes. The wounded knee would heal in time, but what about my wounded psyche? As I stared, depressed, at my naked reflection in the bathroom mirror (more reason for depression), I suddenly realized I had the recipe that would make me feel ‘mo bedda’.

I began the recovery process by ‘medicating’ the turkey repeatedly (using a straw instead of a syringe) with a tangy martini. Next, I lowered the poor plumbed-up carcass into a tub of steaming bath water. There, I happily bobbed, slow ‘n lazy-like, for an hour or so…