Epiphany in Amsterdam

 

I was in Amsterdam because if you work on a rig in Dutch waters for an agency not based in Holland, you don’t pay any taxes. It worked out ok for me because it meant I could do a roustabout job for the same wages as for roughnecking in the UK. Roustabouting is easier than roughnecking. I got a job through the agency, caught a flight to Amsterdam, was at the heliport at the right time. I got to the rig, worked there a few trips before my knee went.

It was something I just knew. Sometimes you get pains in your legs during twelve hour shifts on steel decks. Sometimes you get them, accept them as part of the job. But this was different. This one wouldn’t go away.

I got through the shift, but when I woke up for the next one, my knee had swollen up to twice its normal size. It looked like a bag of fluid. I went to the medic, confirmed that it was a real injury, made arrangements to catch the next flight off.

I said goodbye to the boys, was helicoptered on a regular flight to Amsterdam. I saw the skaters on the canals from the chopper window. Ironic when you come from Ottawa and the mother of all skating canals and they haven’t had a cold enough winter in Amsterdam for years to enable skating on their canals. And I couldn’t skate because of my knee.

There had been enough cold, windswept shifts, big pieces of steel swinging my way on that job. It was time for a break. What better place to do it than in Amsterdam, on an oil company’s tab?

I got in touch with the proper doctor who was a chiropractor and physiotherapist. I had to go to him once a week, then to an orthopaedic surgeon.I got a room on Huiderkoperstraat near Rembrandstplein. There was a sink, enough room for a bed and a chair. It was fine. I lived in that closet for months, drank large amounts of Courvoisier and beer. The smoke was legal.

I bought an electric guitar, a small amp, some earphones. I blew up the cheap earphones the same day.

It was a lonely time of freedom. I could lay in bed with my radio and guitar, read all the second hand books I wanted. I could make the rounds of the drinking bars or the stoner cafes or just wander around streets which were busy before North America was invaded by white men. I only had to show up at the doctor’s, once a week. I bandaged my knee in an elastic to walk around.

The red light district got old very fast. There were some bars there that stayed open around the clock, places with good, cheap, live music, but the streets themselves were depressing. It all made sense, having the prostitution and soft drugs legalized, but it was commodifying some things which were sacred, in a way. The authorities could keep an eye on it, control it a little. It was so sensible that it was impossible to imagine the whole system moved to Ontario.

The red light district was a nice place to visit when there was a special band or special dope or to play pool at the end of a drunk. There were so many blonde girls driving bicycles around Amsterdam that it was difficult to get enthusiastic about walking along canals after dark, seeing the groups of drunken men shopping in the windows. Some of the girls even had a rear view mirror reflecting their images out to the street when their windows faced the wrong way.

I spent many hours, many days on that bed in that room near Rembrandsplein. The BBC World Service at night reminded me of England and Scotland. I thought of my old friends, wondered where they were. I thought of my recent months in Crete.

There was an old theatre where I saw an African band. At the bar, a government approved house dealer worked out of a window on the second floor instead of coming around to tables. You could stand in the balcony, look down on the stage, drink beer and roll joints.

The African guy had fifteen people in the band, not counting the chorus line of white girls. He, himself, played a big, gourd stringed instrument. He rocked, played the blues. I saw Eric Burdon there. He admitted to the audience that Amsterdam “freaked him out”. He yelled at a guy who was wired, climbing his speaker columns,

“Hey man, do I show up on your work site and take bread out of your mouth?” The crowd was behind him, his band cooked, a good bass player.

With a permanent address, I was able to get some mail from home. In my little room on Huiderkoppestraat, I received the news of my uncle Earl’s death. He was “the sheriff” to us as kids, retired to Sand Bay from Northern Electric in Montreal. He was the last of the Wheeler boys, the four brothers. Now, he was gone.

In a few months, my leg was better, the doctors couldn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t go back to work. I played my guitar, drank, smoked and listened to BBC World Service.

One night, I was drawn into a bar by the music. It turned out to be Salsa, but at that time, I had no idea what it was. I knew it had some Caribbean influences, but the centre of it seemed to be Spanish. It was an occasion which all the expats from the Caribbean celebrated. I drank my beer, stood at the bar, watched the band. A black guy, older, danced in the crowd near the band. He was surrounded by beautiful women, Dutch and otherwise, all night. In the men’s room I asked him what it was he was doing on the dance floor.

“It’s Salsa, man. I’m not from there, but I lived in Cuba for years. I love it, man”

It was a good enough explanation for me. He knew what I meant. I remembered the way he shook so freely, like a matador, took it all so seriously and enjoyed it.

Above the sink in my room was a mirror. I shared the toilet and shower with some other people on that floor, took my clothes with me to wash in the shower. I stared into the mirror for a day before I decided to shave off my moustache. After that, I looked at myself without a moustache many times. I felt female when I saw the white slash of flesh above my mouth which had been covered for years. I felt naked.

It was time to go back to the rig. I owed the doctors, I owed some rent on my room and I owed Fritz, a Dutchman who lived in England, a mechanic on the rig. I packed my bag, stowed my guitar and amp in my room, took a bus to Schipol Airport. The chopper was leaving for the rig in another hour.

I watched people heading for their destinations in the sunny, cold morning. Holiday vacations, business trips, young, old, they were all going somewhere. I sat in a cafe in the main terminal, ate a Danish, drank coffee. There was no way I was going back to the rig. I changed that to include the North Sea on the bus back into Amsterdam.

Amsterdam was even better in the next few days. I could only afford a ticket to London so I spent what I had left over in Amsterdam. I bought a Gibson in a second hand music store for the price of my amp and guitar, squandered what little money I had left. London was in the near future but my time in Europe was up. I knew I was going home.

Leave a Comment

The North Cormorant

It was the fall when I first flew out to the North Cormorant. It was one of those flights which you caught in Aberdeen, took a fixed wing to the Shetlands, did the rest of it by helicopter. The platform was halfway between Norway and the Shetland Islands in the North Sea. I had no idea that I would spend six of my next twelve months there.

There weren’t many who survived falling into the North Sea. There was one on the opposite shift from us. He was a roustabout named Neil from Barra, an ex fisherman. The circling survival ship got him, two miles from the rig, in a gale, at night. You might say he was very lucky. He was supposed to be dead after ten minutes from hypothermia, but when they picked him up after twenty minutes, all he said was, “Gee, thought I was a goner”.

The companies screwed Neil around for years after that. I used to see him in the Aberdeen pubs. He hit his leg on the way down that night, wasn’t fit to work. He had been walking along, hit a spot where someone had left the grilling off the deck. The companies didn’t want to pay for his time off.

There were stories that some companies had tried to charge guys for their issued rig wear when they were in a chopper crash at Sumburgh, in the Shetlands.

Graham was a roustabout on my shift. The roustabouts could work their way up to the drill floor to work as a roughneck or they could work their way up to boss of the roustabouts on the deck. Some got their crane operator papers. They were guaranteed jobs as bosses of the roustabout crews.

Graham wanted to work as a roughneck on the drill floor. He came up from the deck, relieved all the roughnecks to get the experience. He took the taunts, jokes and insults on the drill floor until his bafflement subsided. He learned the names of the tools and the procedures we used.

He was a young guy who lived in Oban. We became friends, planned the next trip for a visit to the west coast. We piled into a borrowed Volkswagen bug, drove to Oban.

Oban was a tourist centre in the nineteenth century for the English and rich Scottish. It still welcomed tourists and was the home of a fishing fleet which specialized in shrimp.

Graham’s friends were shrimp fishermen who arrived onshore soon after we landed there. We drank with them for days. They were doing a more dangerous job than we were. They went out in the treacherous waters, for ten days at a time, in small boats, with no safety. They made good money, but they were thankful to return in one piece.

Chingy, Graham’s best friend, was up on charges of assault. One night, in Ullapool, the Russian fleet sat offshore. Chingy heard that one of the local girls had been attacked by a Russian trawler man. After enough drinks in the bar, Chingy found a Russian, kicked his eye out. It was more of a local tradition than an international incident. Chingy would be prosecuted some time in the future. He said he could handle jail time.

The fishermen gave me a running commentary on the females as we sat in one of the bars on the local circuit. They pointed out the ones they had “rode”.

Graham’s phone calls were taken at the Oban Hotel. His own flat was bought and paid for by money he made poaching from a fish farm. He said his ancestors had been hunted by the English and often dodged “mantraps”. I had no idea what he was talking about until I read the books Brodie lent me.

Brodie was big Bob. He was, like Graham, a Highlander. He had a mechanical engineering degree, but came to learn the hard way. He was earmarked by the drilling company to follow the usual sequence of roughneck, derrick hand, assistant driller and driller. From there he could become a toolpusher and a company man. At that level, the money and perks were very good.  It was a long, hard road, but he wanted to do it honestly.

The problem in the oil patch is that a university education only equips a person with the theoretical side of drilling. The old veterans with little education and a lot of experience were being replaced. Their wisdom was being lost.

Brodie and I pulled slips, threw tongs, took our turns riding up and down on the riding belt in all kinds of weather. He lent me The Highland Clearances and Culloden by John Prebble upon hearing that my father’s mother was a Ross.

I found out, talking on the drill floor or reading the books, that the Scottish suffered as much as the Irish in the nineteenth century.  I learned that a man trap was exactly that, a trap for a man. They were a kind of leg hold trap designed by the English and rich Scottish landlords to kill or cripple poachers like Graham’s ancestors.

Brodie took a trip, by train, across Canada in the middle of our time on the North Cormorant. He visited my mother in Ottawa, stayed at the youth hostel which used to be the jail. All he had to say to me, when I saw him again, was that I was a “bad bastard” My mom figured I went wrong right after I started to play rugby.

Davey was the derrick man I shared a bathroom with. He lived on the island of Mull, tied his own lobster traps. He said his kids used to call him “the lodger” because they saw so little of him. His wife ran a B&B in their house.

Construction workers, guys from way across the rig, nothing to do with us, used to show up at the cabin just to see Davey’s forearms. At first, to me, he looked like Popeye. His forearms were extra well developed.

When it was my turn to “go up the stick”, Davey was my teacher. I had done a little in Alberta. I was scared up there, ninety feet above the steel floor. Davey came out on the monkey board to help me as I struggled to haul in the ninety foot collars and lengths of drill pipe.

I had the security of the thick, leather belt, tied to the derrick by four ropes, the belly buster: he had nothing. My leg trembled uncontrollably when I waited for the block, dog bones and elevators to rise to my level.

I was concerned for Davey’s safety because he was always laughing so hard. He would do a Groucho Marx imitation of me in the smoke room later, illustrating to the boys how I looked handling pipe on the monkey board. His rear end stuck out, he put a hand like Groucho’s out, flicking ash off a cigar.

Davey’s other duties consisted of keeping the pumps running and the drilling mud to a certain viscosity. He, and no one above him, ever missed the chance to tell you how great it was not to have to put up with the abuse which the roughnecks did. They crowed and preened about it until the guy above them rubbed their noses in it.

Davey was Bob, the rig electrician’s, brother in law. They would see me covered in diesel based drill mud or soaked from the weather or paint. Bob would say, “Stevie yer a midden”. He and Davey would laugh as Davey did his silent Groucho impression for Bob.

Alan was the assistant driller, from Dundee. He was everything you wouldn’t expect in a rig worker. He was short, had a pot belly and a partially bald head. He would tell me I had no manners when I looked at the paper over his shoulder in the change room before the shift started, crack the filthiest joke, in the same breath. He was a little crazy. You came to see, after a while, that he was given a wide berth by his bosses on the rig.

Alan had the easiest job on the drill crew. He bossed everyone around, except the driller and the toolpusher. He did little, himself. He was at the point where his knowledge became more important than his physical effort. He loved it.

Our crew sometimes stopped work because we were laughing so hard at the antics Alan got up to on the drill floor. He could imitate Rick, a Canadian toolpusher who relieved sometimes, in such a hilarious parody of confusion, that everyone would be doubled over laughing.

When there was slow drilling or some other delay, Alan wandered around talking to everyone. The motto on the North Sea rigs is, “If it moves, grease it, if it don’t, paint it”, so Alan often found the roughnecks scrubbing, painting or greasing. He would give a few unnecessary orders, just hang around. He could tell you about the gangs of Dundee settling their differences with shotguns and then sing the lyrics of every one of Paul Macartney’s songs. Alan threw a couple of the bigger roughnecks around the change room when they challenged his authority.

Alan was the only guy on the crew who didn’t take the time to call or visit me in the Aberdeen Hospital. I almost lost my eye, scrubbing down the drill floor walls, had to be medivacced to Aberdeen.

The Kiwis, whose couch I was using at the time, snuck a couple of pints into my room. Most of the North Cormorant crew visited. Alan, I was told, shook his head,

“I never go”

It wasn’t because we weren’t friends.

On one of the visits by the Kiwis, we asked a nurse what all the kids were doing outside the window. She explained that, for some reason, psylopscybin mushrooms grew in great profusion on the lawns.“We ‘re always chasing them away” she said.

Ronnie was the boss of the roustabout crew. He was from the old part of Aberdeen. He could translate for Bill from Buckie, up the coast. The man sounded like he had a mouthful of marbles, when he spoke. It took me the whole trip, when I returned, to figure out what he meant when he asked, “How’s yer een, Stevie?” I later found that “een” meant eyes. He was asking about my eyes.

Ronnie worked on deck directing the cranes, foreman of the roustabout crew. He began relieving the roughnecks, eventually worked his way up the derrick. We met when he took me up to the blocks on a riding belt, him on the air tugger which controls it.

I had still not gotten used to the damn riding belts. There was no such thing in Alberta. Roughnecks weren’t expected to go up every time a derrick man threw a pipe across the derrick. In the North Sea it was standard practice.

Ronnie was just getting used to the drill floor. Whether it was because he had a plan with Alan and Chris, the driller, or because he wasn’t used to it, he gave a fast jerk on the air tugger handle, sent me thirty feet upward by the belt.

I wore the belt around my waist, under my rump. It was attached to a quarter inch cable which ran through a shiv at the top of the hundred and twenty foot derrick, back to the drum.

The worst thing you can do in a riding belt, is to hang onto anything. It still keeps going up. Nothing slows its progress. You turn upside down, with your hands grasping something, while your bottom half rises above you.

Ronnie caught me by surprise. I stood adjusting the belt and the grease gun. I was ascending to grease the blocks. I lost my hard hat, panicked when I shot up in the air. Ronnie mouthed an apology as he lowered me to get my hat. Later, he said he hoped we weren’t going to have words over the incident. I looked at his big arms and open smile, laughed it off.

Chris was the driller from Newcastle Upon Tyne who was often bent over the brake handle, helpless with laughter at the jokes on the drill floor. On a trip onshore, a dentist told him he was getting “a little long in the tooth” when he looked at his receding gums. Chris tried to cut down on the snuff and chewing tobacco after that, but we were all addicted to it, he never quit.

Chris had worked his way up the ladder. He could do any of our jobs, if he had to. He wasn’t as cruel as other drillers and toolpushers. They often popped the pipe, full of mud, on the roughnecks or made green hands crawl into filthy spots to clean, during down time.

In Alberta, there are certifiable sadists running brakes, working as drillers. There are (unshared) bottles of whiskey awarded to drillers whose crews make hole the fastest. To these drillers, men are expendable.

The last I heard of Chris was in a pub. Somebody said that he went home unexpectedly, caught his girlfriend in bed with his best friend. The guys on the North Cormorant never saw him again. They tried Chinook flights from Aberdeen to the North Cormorant and the surrounding rigs, but the helicopters were too big, the headwinds too strong. The smaller, one bladed choppers, which they went back to, were not staffed by the smiling British Airlines hostesses which the Chinooks had. They were less safe and comfortable, but faster.

In a wet phone booth in London with a Scottish girl and tickets to Paris, I made the phone call which ended my year on the North Cormorant.

Leave a Comment

The Piper

 

My first offshore rig job was on the Piper Alpha. I didn’t know it at the time but the Piper was one of the biggest, oldest, most profitable production platforms in the British sector of the North Sea. I emerged onto the helideck from my first chopper ride with the wide-eyed feeling you tried to hide on your first trip offshore.

I had time to dump my duffel bag in the cabin they assigned me, get some pairs of coveralls, a bag of gloves. It wasn’t a normal crew change. I was replacing a guy who got hurt and medivacced off  the night before. I started a twelve-hour shift with a crew of three other roustabouts and the crane driver, Kenny.

I was bunking in with Kenny for an unknown reason. Normally, the four roustabouts, alternating twelve hour shifts, shared cabins with their opposite numbers. Mine was a bottom bunk in a room of crane drivers. Kenny was the boss of the crane drivers. I was replacing a guy on his crew, so we slept and worked at the same time.

My first job, on my first shift as a roustabout, was dumping fifty-five gallon drums of radioactive shale into the sea. I watched the roughnecks shovel the shale into a drum on the drill floor. In addition to their usual coveralls, they wore outer suits which looked like rubber. It was supposed to be protection against the radioactivity in the rock that was coming out of the hole. Because of the work on the drill floor, the protective suits were shredded and torn, hanging off  the roughnecks in strips. There was an engineer running up and down the catwalk with a crackling Geiger counter. Roughnecks, in the smoke room, joked about watching their appendages fall off.

The smoke room provided breaks in the twelve hour shifts, scenes of  laughter, boredom and rage. When you were new, they tested you. They tried to scare you, probe you, disturb you, wind you up. Then they sat back, chuckled at your reaction. The Scots were masters at this. It seemed to be a racially imbedded talent. All done in good humour, anything for a laugh.

During one of those breaks, soaked in mud and oil from relieving the roughnecks, I listened to one the veterans talk. He looked around the steel room, at the walls.

“You could put your fist through the legs of this old piece of shit. If there’s ever gonna be a disaster in the North Sea, it’ll be on this old piece of shit”

I didn’t think much about it at the time. I laughed like everyone else.

There were moments in the next years when I did think about it, though. His words came back to me on other rigs, as I was getting cozy in a bunk. Exhaustion, food, a hot shower, warm inside; outside, a gale blowing between the Shetlands and Norway. Nights like that, I remembered, had a  shiver, as sleep descended. Was it just another trick to scare a green hand? The old guy who said it, didn’t laugh.

By the time the crane brought the first drum down from the drill floor, I had been told what to do by the man I relieved. When the crane driver lowered the drum, I gave him a signal to stop at the right spot so I could tip it over the rail, while he held the weight.

As I tipped the first few drums of shale over the side, I was thinking about the wisdom of  dumping radioactive rocks into the North Sea. Who would believe me onshore, who would care?   There was no point in complaining. This was the job I’d tried so hard to get. What choice did I have? Pack my bags and wait for the next flight on the helideck?

So when the drums of radioactive shale descended from the sky, seawater pouring out of holes in the sides, I dumped the grey, flat pieces, hoping they wouldn’t poison anything.

The Piper Alpha, like most platforms, had big cranes on opposite sides of the deck. The deck held all the pipe and equipment needed on the drill floor. Almost everything brought on board was moved by container. Supply ships filled the deck with steel containers which had to be stacked on top of each other, for lack of space.

The roustabouts, one with a radio on the same the frequency as the crane driver, landed the containers and pipe.

The crane driver moved back and forth between the cranes, depending upon the load, where he had to pick it up, where he had to land it.

A night shift, on deck, in a North Sea gale, wasn’t a good time to discover that Kenny was near sighted. The remarks weren’t made by the other roustabouts, as I suspected, to try to scare me. In the black and white shadows of the big, swaying lights, in the horizontal rain, it was an unwelcome revelation.

Kenny’s cranes lifted tons of steel from the decks of bobbing sea going tugs, up over the sides of the platform, across containers of different heights. They said that it was his perspective which was bad. On those stormy nights, when it was hard to see and he was tired, the best tactics were to find the spot the container was supposed to go, do your best to signal him, get out of the way. You always looked around for an escape route, in case he didn’t see you. Your greasy rain suit and slipping boots didn’t help when you were being chased across the container tops by steel boxes, in high winds.

What could you do about a crane driver with bad eye sight?  Everyone knew about it, but no one seemed to care. Kenny was Kenny. He was a fixture, no one had been killed or crushed yet.

During my time offshore with Kenny and the boys I did little except eat, sleep and shower when we weren’t working. On occasion, I lay half asleep in my bunk, while Kenny did business with visitors from all parts of the rig.

I had long ago given up trying to sort out the dialects of the British Isles. Many of the thousands of offshore workers were from Northern England and Scotland. The money to be made on the rigs, for fishermen who were risking much more, for no guaranteed income, drew the coastal Scots like flies. Since they were sailors to begin with, they knew about ropes, knots, shackles, hard graft in the rottenest weather. It was understood that they would prefer to fish rather than this, but their fishery was in trouble, they had families. The oil business, like the British army, was happy to recruit there, because they knew the value of the workers.

The industrial cities of Britain all sent men to work offshore. There were men from the islands and from small farm villages. There were ex military men as well as merchant mariners driven off their decks by containers. When you mixed in some Aussies and Kiwis, you came close to Babylon when they all spoke fast, at once.

Many of Kenny’s conversations took place while I was in the cabin but were unintelligible to me, though I heard them. The language was impossible to understand.

Kenny, was a partner with another crane driver in a pornographic video scam. He got videos for the rig. Probably he was selling them to individuals, as well.

I laid in my bunk, reading, when a conversation about videos took place. It was business talk with a group of guys, about a week after I arrived. By then, Kenny judged me to be safe to have around. He knew that I was only there till the end of the hitch, I’d probably never be back.

On this old rig, the crews were pretty well set. The company had a seniority list they’d use if the injured man didn’t return.

As they left the cabin, one guy told me to keep my mouth shut by zipping his lip. I nodded. He left with a smile.

What was I going to say about it? I had enough problems surviving the twelve hour shifts. We were a hundred ninety kilometres northeast of Aberdeen in the North Sea. Like dumping the shale into the ocean, it seemed a necessary compromise. I did the job, kept my mouth shut, in return for good money and experience offshore.

The first step in working offshore was to get experience. It was the first thing they asked when you applied for a job. When you had worked offshore once, you were ahead of the game. There were piles of applications for the jobs on each company’s desk. It was the classic catch – 22.

The Piper had two theatres. There was a regular theatre, with comfortable movie type seating, where they showed contemporary movies. They even had a guy outside the theatre with a request sheet on a clipboard. If you wanted to request a movie, they’d try to get it.

The other theatre, with the same interior, was strictly for porn. Kenny had a connection, through the supply ships, to Denmark, where they manufacture a lot of porn. He got every kind of porn.

I tried the porn theatre one night. I didn’t like it. There were forty or fifty guys sitting together with their hands in the pockets of their accommodation coveralls, watching endless sex videos. Living for two weeks with three hundred men was bad enough. That just made it worse. I went to bed.

Kenny and his boys were busy. To supplement the porn enterprise, they were stealing from the containers. Word was, there were cartons of cigarettes and booze stashed all over the rig.

As the roustabouts and crane driver landed containers on the deck, they tried to place the ones for the galley as close to the accommodation as possible. There was even a small deck outside the back door of the galley where some containers could be landed. That was supposed to be the end of the roustabouts’ and crane drivers’ dealings with those containers.

Certain sealed containers were locked by Customs and Excise. They were opened only by the galley boss, emptied into the galley by the stewards. There was no drinking allowed offshore but at Christmas each man was allowed one beer and a cigar. It varied from company to company, rig to rig. Who knew what the bosses got shipped in? Teetotallers became very popular around Christmas time, offshore.

The Christmas I was there, Kenny’s gang, the other crane driver and some roustabouts, managed to land the special containers at night, break into them, steal the booze and cigarettes. They had a system of ripping off the containers, stashing the goods, blaming it on the cooks and stewards.

I didn’t know anything about it at the time. It could have happened on a shift when I was working. There were jobs all over the rig to which Kenny could have assigned me to get me out of the way.

There were no fire drills when I was there. No one knew if the evacuation procedures would work. The platform kept pumping oil, one hundred twenty thousand barrels a day, everybody made good money, the company was happy. The British government collected five hundred million pounds a year, in revenues, from the Piper Alpha.

When my hitch ended on the Piper, I took the taxi from the heliport to the warm Aberdeen pubs to have a drink with the boys, say our goodbyes.

I met one of them, a few years later, in Aberdeen. He had left the Piper, was working on another rig, like myself. He told me that the police had finally raided the platform, searched lockers and the rest of the rig from top to bottom, found all kinds of contraband including a working homebrew still. Some guys lost their jobs, some were charged.

I assumed Kenny would have been fired. But, sometimes, guys like him never get caught. Even if he did get run off of the Piper, it might have saved his life.

A few years later, I was in Ottawa, trying to deal with my mother’s Alzheimer’s. It was a major change after what I’d been doing for the past twenty years. I picked up the paper outside of the apartment we shared. The headline read, ‘153 missing in rig disaster’.

Two hundred, twenty-seven men, including construction workers, were working the night shift or in their bunks. The ones inside the accommodation, near the centre of the platform, were killed immediately by the explosion and shaft of fire, which sucked up all the oxygen. The ones working their shift up on deck, were lucky. One survivor said, “It was a case of over the side or die there”. They jumped seventy metres into the heaving, black North Sea. Some were rescued. The emergency procedures didn’t work, nor did the lifeboats. As for the spark which ignited the leaking gas, a welder’s torch was suggested, but it could just as easily have been a guy having a smoke where he wasn’t supposed to.

Some of the men I worked with were on the Piper, that night. There were stewards, cooks, office workers, even a few roustabouts, who were lifers on the platforms. They said goodbye to families and friends, went off to work for two weeks at a time, for their whole working lives. Two weeks off every month beat a nine to five. The money was good, there were no expenses at work except tobacco and toothpaste. Your bed was made, your laundry done, there was good food, all you could eat every day, prepared by professional chefs. Many guys got addicted to it. They couldn’t work any other way. The longer you did it, the harder it was to leave. Those crews packed their bags for that two week trip in the summer of 1988, said their goodbyes, never came back.

The final count was 164 dead.

Leave a Comment

Beneath the Matala Moon

Matala is a small fishing village on the very southern coast of Crete, between Africa and Greece. It is famous among travellers like the route from Australia to Europe is famous. By the time it is listed in the travellers’ books, it is old and well known.

I was staying with Rob, a friend from Canada, who lived in Finsbury Park, worked at the London zoo. He mentioned that ”beneath the Matala moon” was in the lyrics of ‘Carey’, that he’d had a good time there when he’d gone in the past. This was all the direction I needed. I had always liked Joni Mitchell’s songs.

My first memory of Matala was waking up, hung over, a dog barking near the fence. I felt around my sleeping bag, couldn’t find my passport or traveller’s cheques. There was a guy cowering by the fence. He had them. His name was George.

George was frozen to the spot, quaking in fear, confronted by a big, hostile German Shepherd named Cello. Harry was Cello’s owner. He was a big Dutchman with a mullet, a FREE SONNY BARGER sleeveless t-shirt, big muscles. He liked to push people around.

Harry had seen Cello trap George as he ripped off my stuff. He was up early, making a coffee in his trailer, just outside the wire fence of the camp grounds. He lived there for the summer before travelling with Cello, his two boys and wife, back to Holland, for the winter. He knew Manoli who had, by this time, responded to the barking. He stood, sleepy, beside George, smiling resignedly. I tried to look serious and angry, thrashing around in my sleeping bag.

We had a meeting in Manoli’s office, where he had a cot and some coffee making utensils. Everybody in the campground left their valuables there when they went to the beach. I slapped George once, settled for my passport and Traveller’s cheques back. I found out later that George could have killed me in a fight, nothing short of a gun was going to stop him.

As we talked, George quiet because of Cello’s presence at the door, Harry and Manoli believed that what I said was true: I wasn’t a rich tourist, I dug ditches at home. All I wanted was a coffee, some boiled eggs at the taverna. I told them to tell George not to do it again, to let him go. There was no harm done, no cops for miles.

Harry gave me a tarp, to put up between two trees, for a tent. I joined the other tourists at the taverna. We sat, guys from three or four countries, rock and Marley turned up loud, at the taverna across the road from the campground. We’d welcome, with quarts of German beer, the buses which showed up from Iraklion, four or five times a day. They would stop, disgorge passengers in front of the taverna, refill themselves, before heading back to Iraklion with their load of tourists.

The departing tourists had done their time in Greece, were moving on. The visitors in the summer months were two or three weekers. Some, were on package excursions from Australia, some, on two week vacations from their jobs in England or Germany or Norway. They were all replaceable to the Greeks. They were all replaced.

I didn’t notice the Greeks at that time. I had the same attitude toward the locals as most of the tourists. They were there for my needs, but they weren’t important. The other tourists and travellers were interesting to me, the Cretans, who I call Greeks, were in the background.

Matala was crawling with women. Every bus disgorged more who only stayed around for a few weeks. I didn’t see the Greeks, but they were there. Sipping quietly on a Coke or coffee, they were, like us, watching the girls.

There were caves in the cliffs at Matala. Some said the early Christians used them to hide from the Romans. Someone in Joni’s crowd discovered them. Probably hippies looking for a Journey to the East. But they shat in them. They were, according to tourists and Greeks, too gross to be worth looking at. I saw the Matala moon many nights, but I passed on the caves.

The Greeks approached me after I stuck up for a Greek, in a fight with some Germans, over a woman in the disco. They had been watching me since the incident with George. They knew, through the staff  at the taverna, that I would be out of money soon.

My first job was with Janni’s crew of woodcutters. He owned a dump truck and a few chain saws. He employed some older Greek guys and an Austrian also named Janni. The Austrian Janni spoke only Greek, lived with his wife, in a quiet village, away from tourists. I accepted him as he accepted me, neither of us asked the other why they were there.

They were all amused by me. I was as blond as they were dark but I could work like them, withstand the heat and bugs, put up with the cuts and scratches I received on the job without complaining. I was satisfied, if not happy, with the wages they paid me.

I felt better getting home to the campground, having a shower, getting drunk, eating in the taverna at night, than just crawling off the beach, drunk by three in the afternoon. After roughnecking in the bush of Alberta, there wasn’t much one couldn’t make one’s self do. Every year the Greeks took some tourists or young locals to work with them, every year most quit.

Austrian Janni was a hard worker. He and Greek Janni, a large, jolly man with curly brown hair and a bushy moustache, kept three of us busy picking up the old branches, throwing them into the dump truck. At the end of each tree, we combined to throw the bigger logs into the truck.

They were old olive trees, eighty to one hundred years, which didn’t produce any more. So every day with Janni’s crew was, for the most part, in an olive grove.

By tradition and custom, the boss supplied the food for lunch. Sometimes we’d all clamber into the dump truck, Janni would head for the nearest restaurant. It wasn’t a tourist place, more for Greeks like these woodcutters. There was nothing fancy out front, just a couple of tables and chairs where the old men could drink their coffee.

I rubbed a cold quart of Henninger over my forehead in the shady back of one of these places, watched Greek Janni bargain with the owner over our lunch. He inspected the carcasses of freshly killed rabbits, they reached an agreement.

The parts were fried, in a pan, there in front of us. I started to understand, a little, the Greek, the communication between the men. I stuck to the large parts of the rabbit, those that looked familiar. The Greeks and Janni the Austrian popped the lemon shaped rabbit skulls into their mouths, crushed them with their teeth, devoured the contents. They laughed at my look.

I took two buses, to meet Janni, in the morning. I changed buses on a hill where students in uniform waited, buses and cars full of people went to work. There was a cement plaque by the side of the road which I couldn’t read. People had been waiting in that spot for thousands of years. The cliffs fell to the Mediterranean Sea, beside the road. Before the heat of the day descended, the sea breeze blew across Crete.

When we were on the job, in the olive groves, we had the best lunch. The two Jannis shut down their screaming chain saws, the crew made itself comfortable in the shade of a big olive tree. The Greek Janni supplied the wine and feta from his house. The tomatoes, onions and cucumbers were cut into the big bowl with a generous slug of olive oil, to soak them. The bread, from the bakery, that morning, and an occasional can of mackerel pieces were bought. The rest of the meal was grown at home.

The best of the olive oil was kept for the family, the rest, sold. Janni’s olive oil was smooth, golden. You could eat it with just a piece of bread from the loaf. All of the Greeks seemed to have another side, a hidden side, which you could only see if they trusted you.

My next job was for Georgio who called me “Stefanos”. He had a farm in the mountains, drove a little Toyota pickup. He showed up one day at the taverna, offered me a job. I agreed, he picked me up every morning until the job finished. He and his compadres squeezed me into the cab of the pickup, talked to me all the way to the job. They wanted me to hear their illegal Partisan songs on the cassette tape.

Georgio owned a huge field, maybe many fields. All I knew was that he needed wire to be strung across hundreds of the concrete posts which we had planted, so that his usual crop of tomatoes would climb, avoiding spoilage on the ground.

Costa had seen me in action, by now, with the tourists, the travellers and the Greeks. He knew I was ok. He checked me out in the campground, taverna and disco and knew I was no threat to his position as godfather of the surrounding valley. He knew that I could do the Greeks a lot of good. He gave me a job working with his crews on construction and, then, in the new disco he was building, in Matala.

Costa picked me up each morning at six am on his Yamaha 750, at the campground. We roared off into the hills to one of the many construction jobs he had going. Sometimes he walked through the campground to survey the sleeping women. If I slept in, he approached my tent, moved my sleeping bag, with a toe, to see if it was empty. If it wasn’t, he looked over the woman I had slept with. He turned up his nose or gave me an approving smile, depending on what he saw.

One hot day, the tourist police showed up on a job. The guy, with a uniform, gun and a belt that went over his shoulder, talked to someone on the other side of the site. Costa left the forming he was doing beside me, touched my shoulder as he passed, confronted the policeman. His brother George, a big guy who spoke no English and wore a carpenter’s belt, like everybody else, stopped work, stood beside the policeman. The other guys told me that George was a champion boxer. He was built like a weight lifter.

They looked over at me a few times but the outcome never was in doubt: Costa had a job to do, there were houses standing half finished all over Crete. If a man was willing to work and he was productive, why stop him? Because the young locals won’t do it for the wages? Bah! The policeman walked away, smiling at George. Costa gave me a wink and a smile when he returned to our forming.

At Costa’s mother’s, we sat beneath the grape vine filled pergola, drank iced tea, his mother bringing us glasses. He said that he’d been to London, checked it out. His sour look was tempered by understanding, but I had no inclination to defend London while I sat there with Costa and his mother on their family farm.

I was sleeping half at the campground, half at the new disco, when Rob came to visit me from London. He brought a forty ouncer of Johnny Walker Black which he called “mother’s milk”. Thomas was a German who made friends with Rob the second he saw the Johnny Walker. I was working, only saw George and a band of young guys from the area heading up the hill. George, who I met when I first arrived, liked ultraviolence. He had a determined frown, a long, lethal looking flashlight in his fist, as he started up the hill.

The young men of the village took care of business. They had recently kicked a whole tent of Frenchmen out for attacking the other guests, especially the females ones. They had, just last week, shot an Italian dead on a nearby beach, for selling heroin to the kids. The legal inquiry had just finished. Nobody knew anything, therefore, no one was guilty. There were no cops in Matala.  Rob had, long ago, given Thomas the bottle to drink. The German was getting violent, challenging the whole campground and the Greeks, to knock him off the hill. Rob was protecting himself as well as getting away from Thomas’ aggravating bleating. He had to see a Swedish girl, anyway. Why hang around Thomas?

Thomas, I saw the next morning, as I waited for a lift, suffered a lot of cuts from some bats around the head. He was unceremoniously trundled onto the first bus leaving Matala in a near catatonic state. He had big clumps of hair missing beneath the bandage on his head.

As the season went on, the disco neared completion. I was living day to day, Costa holding back some of my week’s drachma so I’d have something to leave with.

There were women from all over the world there. Some women were there for the weather, some because Greece was Greece, but these Greeks believed, and it seemed to be so, that women were there, to be with them. One girl told me that a Greek propositioned her on the beach, saying, “Maybe you’re with Stevie, but he’s not a Greek”

The Greek men had a heart sworn assumption that the tourist women should pay for everything. If I, in my goofy, chivalrous way, paid for the drinks or the snack for myself and a woman, I was the butt of a lot of jokes the next day or considered a sad case, to be pitied. They spoke of a man as “poly mafia” when he was seen night after night with a tourist girl but didn’t pay for anything. The “Papa” (Pope) was the greatest Godfather of them all, the Catholic church was the greatest mafia body.

I was constantly getting called from the disco or my tent to come settle disputes. An Australian or Dutch girl would be trying to explain to Manoli, in a headlit scene, that just because she danced with a Greek guy or let him buy her a drink, that she wasn’t giving herself for the night or marriage. The Greeks loved the drama of it. Manoli would console the Greek guy, I would shoo the tourists to their tent. The guy would look mad for a while, then, after making sure that the girl wasn’t with anyone else, go back to the disco to see if he had time to pick out another. I don’t know what the married Greek guys told their wives. All of the tourist women agreed that the Italians were worse than the Greeks at aggressive come ons. The women said that if they slapped a rude man in Italy, they got slapped back.

I stuffed myself at the snail feast. The snails grew on everything below a foot. I saw women and children out gathering them off of rocks and plants in the fields. We gathered in a shack near Matala, ate our way through many pounds of the little shelled creatures. They were served by the men, to the other men, from a big, boiling pot. More were boiled while we ate. We sucked the little critters out of their shells by windpower alone. Until I got the hang of it, I had to use the fork on the table to loosen that last little piece of flesh stuck to the shell. After a while, I could get the last piece by using, as the Greeks did, the shell from the one before. We ate them for hours.

One morning, on Costa’s bike, we stopped at a crossroads, in a sleepy village, where an old man with a net hat, baggy jodhpur pants, big, black, leather boots, stood under a tree. He had a grey, bushy moustache. The dappled sunlight glistened on his knife. Costa and he exchanged greetings and information. He had hanging, in front of him, the carcass of a goat, half skinned. He told Costa something, looked over for confirmation to two young boys who were sitting in the shade of neighbouring tree. Above them, two goats, which had grazed on the lower branches of the tree, were standing on the thick, lower limbs to get at the leaves above them.

Tourist season was ending, regulars who had been there all summer, were thinning out. Some of us got drunk on the raki they made from the dregs of the wine harvest. We finished the disco.          Prospects for the winter narrowed. I could leave Matala to work at a tomato canning factory, in Crete, or hitch north. It was time to go. Costa paid me off, one night, at the disco. He told me

“To work in Greece, Stevie, takes some grease” and pocketed a percentage of my savings.

I hitched back to London where Rob and I found a pub with ‘Carey’ on the jukebox.

Leave a Comment

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 63 other followers