cover

BITTERSWEET SANDS

1

Twenty-Four Days in Fort McMurray

Rick Ranson

Copyright © Rick Ranson 2014

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication — reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system — without the prior consent of the publisher is an infringement of the copyright law. In the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying of the material, a licence must be obtained from Access Copyright before proceeding.

Bittersweet Sands is available as an ebook: 978-1-927063-63-7

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Ranson, Rick, 1949-, author
Bittersweet Sands: Twenty Four Days in Fort McMurray / Rick Ranson.
Issued in print and electronic formats.

Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN 978-1-927063-62-0 (pbk.).--ISBN 978-1-927063-63-7 (epub).--
ISBN 978-1-927063-64-4 (mobi)

1. Ranson, Rick, 1949- --Anecdotes. 2. Fort McMurray (Alta.)-- Anecdotes. I. Title.

FC3699.F675R35 2014           971.23’2           C2014-901853-3
C2014-901854-1
Editor for the Board: Don Kerr
Cover and Interior Design: David A. Gee
Author Photo: Fred Elcheshen, Elcheshen’s Photography Studios
First Edition: October 2014

Bittersweet_Sands_Interior_REVISED_Aug27_0002_002

NeWest Press acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Alberta Multimedia Development Fund, and the Edmonton Arts Council for our publishing program. We also acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund for our publishing activities.

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No bison were harmed in the making of this book.
We are committed to protecting the environment and to the responsible use of natural resources. This book was printed on FSC-certified paper.

Printed and bound in Canada

To Isabel Ranson.

We miss you Mom.
Every damned day.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Shutdown!

Union Hall

Boomers

The Road

Day One – Orientation

Day Two – Selling Time in Ft. McMurray, Set Up

Day Three – Starting Over, First Email from Doug

Day Four – Secretary Scary

Day Five – Toolbox Talk

Day Six – Big Mistake, Email Day Six

Day Seven – Morning Warning

Day Eight – Party

Day Nine – Oxygen Content, Emeralds and Snakes

Day Ten – Lobotomy’s Phone In, That Loud Man

Day Eleven – C6, Email Day Eleven

Day Twelve – Dinosaur Farts

Day Thirteen – Redoing the Job Hazard Card

Day Fourteen – Frozen Hams, Email Day Fourteen

Day Fifteen – Jason by the Radio, Double Scotch’s Issues

Day Sixteen – Lobotomy’s Final Phone In

Day Seventeen – Lunch Break, Email Day Seventeen

Day Eighteen – Gas Monitor, a Lesson in Love

Day Nineteen – You Can’t Drink Him Pretty

Day Twenty – Stretches, Terminated

Day Twenty One – Too Tall Won’t Be With Us Anymore

Day Twenty Two – “Got Ten Bucks?”

Day Twenty Three – Spider

Day Twenty Four – The Great Eastern, Lonesome Road

Epilogue

SHUTDOWN!

“A bunch of welders went to McMurray for pre-shutdown. They’ve cleared fifty thousand already. It’s going to be a big one.”

The voice on the phone didn’t wait for, or want, an answer.

“I’ll bet they got closer to sixty thousand, maybe even a hundred. Well fuck a wild man, a hundred thou—”

The voice on the phone had to get off. He had to tell more people. As if the telling made him part of the riches already.

I was going to Fort McMurray. From every part of North America: from farms, cities, and small towns with names like Portage La Prairie, Indian Head, Red Deer, and the aptly named Hope, from across the continent, men and women answer that call. They pack bags, fuel cars, kiss their sweethearts with a speed verging on frantic. In their bags they throw enough underwear and socks for a week, shirts for a week, blue jeans? Blue jeans are forever. Everything depends on the workers—their wants, their needs, their safety. Controlling workers is like herding cats. They have to be housed, fed, paid, protected, cajoled, nursed, ordered, and, if need be, fired. Materials can be ordered months, even years in advance; workers can’t. Steel can be stored in the snow; men can’t. Equipment prices can be discounted if bought in bulk. Men? No, manpower is the great unknown.

These are hard, obscene men who bark when they laugh, because that’s what gangs do. Men who are used to working with their bodies, who are not shocked by the sight of their own blood and the blood of others. Men who are accustomed to staying in cheap hotels or construction camps, moving from refinery to refinery, province to province, country to country. Men who drive back and forth down that Trans-Canada Highway, following the work like the Inuit follow caribou.

Before that first worker in a refinery pulls a wrench, shuts a valve, or clicks a computer’s mouse to stop the oil flowing, engineers have been planning that twenty-four-day refinery makeover for years.

A scheduled work stoppage is a finely tuned choreography of obtaining materials, leasing cranes and equipment, hiring workers. While the Fort McMurray refinery plans their shutdown, the engineers take into account that they are in competition with all the other shutdowns all over North America, and there’s a finite number of supplies and manpower on the continent. What looks to the unschooled eye like rats on a carcass has in fact been planned years in advance. Engineers have made fortunes just developing the computer programs that schedule shutdowns down to the minute.

Orders are sent out to construction companies and unions to supply boilermakers for the pressure vessels, pipefitters for the hundreds of miles of pipes, electricians, scaffolders, carpenters, labourers. And welders, welders for everything.

Planning engineers generate the Work List and the resulting Materials List. The Turnaround Team sends out work packages so that when a man shows up in Fort McMurray, he is assured of a bed and food. Everything comes together in an interweaving of men, materials, tools, camp space, food, and time.

Finally that one day comes when the Turnaround Manager looks around a room at other engineers and all the Turnaround Team members from every section of the refinery. He looks at his watch and orders the closing of a valve, the locking out of a switch, or the turning off of a bank of motors.

The shutdown begins.

The black gold dribbles to a stop, the lights in a thousand sensors dim, the needles in hundreds of gauges freeze. The refinery lies still. All that piping and all those vessels seem to sag, then slip into a lassitude of waiting. The thunderous, vibrating rumble of a working refinery becomes just a memory of an echo. The only sound within the now-sinister labyrinth of pipes and chrome is the faint but constant hiss of heating pipes like a steam locomotive idling in a railway station. Small wisps of escaping steam smell of wet cement, oil, and the rotten-egg whiff of hydrogen sulfide. Men speak in whispers at such times. They look over their shoulders as their steel-toed boots clang in the quiet, echoing on the steel grating. The pipes that once vibrated with the precious liquid now hang limp, glinting dull in the sun like a burnt-out forest of tar-streaked chrome, all right angles and silence.

Before he had clicked off, the voice on the phone had a final excited message:

“After the first shutter, they’re going to transfer everybody to the second one, then a third, and on and on. Jeez, man! A thousand guys, seven twelves, maybe fourteens. We’ll be buying our own Brink’s truck to carry the money. I’m getting on that shutdown. This’ll be the biggest shutdown this year.”

My truck roared to life. I was hustling out west.

Going to McMurray.

Going to a shutdown.

UNION HALL

I was enveloped by a thing alive. A hundred blue-jeaned men, jostling, clumping, or slouching against white cinder block walls like discarded garden tools in a basement. The throng in the middle of the floor moved and twitched like cattle infested with ticks. The hall shimmered with the electricity of men who were drawn to the protection of the mob, but who at the same time wouldn’t hesitate to elbow their neighbour aside for a chance at McMurray’s riches.

Men eyed men appraisingly.

I nodded to several men, glanced at a few more, and shot a dark look at a chinless man. The man returned the challenge.

The crowd stood in ragged semicircles facing the dispatcher’s desk. To a man, they jammed their hands deep into their pockets, or crossed their arms, hunching, hiding their hands. Always hiding their hands. I pulled my hands out of my pockets, played with them for a while, then shrugged and put them back.

Low murmurs were interspersed with laughter.

“One thing about Daks, you really don’t have to ask him what’s on his mind.” The speaker’s heehaw laughter sounded like a dull saw slicing green wood.

I nodded towards the speaker. The young man smiled, his eyes sweeping the room to see if anyone else noticed.

A metallic bong from the microphone echoed through the hall, indicating the dispatcher was ready. Every face turned towards the desk.

His voice surrounded the men.

“Jimco Exchanger, Firebag, night shift, five mechanics, ten B Pressure welders, six-tens, two weeks plus, drug and alcohol test.”

A man in front spoke up: “I like six-tens. They give me a chance to get home Sunday, sleep in, wash my clothes, get skinned up.”

Men surged towards the desk. One by one, they handed the dispatcher any certificates that could land them the job. The man at the microphone noted each man’s information on a white slip. Then he placed the paper into the date/time stamp, and with a loud crack that could be heard in the farthest corners of the hall, the slip was stamped. Another man sent to work. Another contract between union and company made.

Bang! Another man sent to work. Bang! Another, and another, one by one until that group melted away, running home to pack, gas up, and get in a goodbye hump with the wife.

The crowd shrank. The remaining men ebbed towards the desk.

“Golden and Fliese, twenty-four-day shutdown, travel in and out paid, camp job, seven days a week, ten hours a day. Possibility of going to seven-twelves....”

I joined the crowd at the desk.

A man murmured:

“Best-managed company in Canada.”

Another jean-clad worker answered:

“Naw, they took those decals off their trucks, too many guys were spitting on them.”

A third spoke up:

“It’s top-rate and what the hell, it’s only twenty-four days.”

A fourth spoke:

“Twenty-four very long days.”

I leaned towards the dispatcher, who looked so hard his spit bounced.

“Who’s the crew?” I asked.

“You accepting?”

I was about to snap a smart-assed reply when I was jostled out of the way by a tall boy, almost a child. The youngster smiled a smile so beautiful I suddenly wanted to hear what he had to say.

“Hi, I was supposed to be here an hour ago, but for the last twenty miles my alternator started to give up. The lights went out an the car started to sputter. So I followed a semi all the way into town. If it wasn’t for that semi, I wouldn’t have made it.

The dispatcher and I looked at each other, then back to the boy.

“So I gets into the city an’ I can’t stop, because if I do I’ll just stall. So I glided right through the intersections.

“Well, there’s this one guy in a station wagon that I must have cut off, and he starts to chase me. I didn’t see who the hell he was. All I could see was some guy in a station wagon chasing me.

“So I pull into my driveway with this guy in the station wagon right on my ass. He gets out of his car and starts screaming at me. He was wearing a windbreaker and starts coming towards me, so I pop him one and tell him to calm down. Then he tells me he’s a cop.

“So he takes my license and registration and I have to go downtown to the cop shop. I had to wake up my roommate to come and get me.

“So they sat me in this chair and I had to answer all kinds of questions, things that had nothing to do with traffic tickets.

“So I get charged with speeding, dangerous driving, blowing a red light, not stopping for a cop, assaulting a police officer, and operating a dangerous vehicle.”

The boy looked back and forth between me and the dispatcher. The dispatcher deadpanned:

“So?”

“So, that’s why I’m late.”

The young man stared at the dispatcher. The dispatcher’s eyes bounced between me and the young man.

“Golden and Fliese?” I asked, returning the dispatcher’s attention back to me.

“You accepting?”

I nodded.

The dispatcher gave me a cold smile and, keeping his eyes on me, he addressed the young man. “Go stand over there. What’s your name?”

“Doug, ah Doug... Doug Hyland,” he stuttered.

“Okay, Mr. Dougdoug. Go stand over there, I’ll call you.”

My eyes followed the boy. “There goes an accident walking.”

The Dispatcher shook his head. “If you can keep him out of jail,” he mused.

“Who’s the rest of the crew?”

“Well, you got Pops as one of the welders, and for riggers, so far...” He looked at the clipboard. “You got Stash...”

“Shit.”

“Actually, he’s been pretty good lately. I guess being beaten by half the reserve calmed him down some.”

“Well, if you’re gonna steal a truck, steal the chief’s.”

“Then you’ll be with whatever comes outta here. Total of twenty.”

“Members?”

“Most, let’s see... There’s Lobotomy, Mongo, Scotch and his old lady Double Scotch, some travel cards, a couple of Permits off the street.”

“Piss tested?”

“It’s McMurray.” The dispatcher gave me a withering look.

“Well, it’s only twenty-four days.”

Bang! The dispatcher smashed the white slip of paper into the time stamp. Picking up another clipboard, he leaned towards me and smiled.

“Take care of the kid.”

“Oh, thanks, thanks a bunch.”

BOOMERS

“Are you going to be on my crew at Fort Mac?” the kid exclaimed. There was a long silence as I squinted at the kid through a haze of winter condensation. We stood at the door of the Union Hall.

“I’m going to Fort McMurray,” the young man said loudly, as if he were alerting the media.

I watched an old green moving van rumble down an Edmonton side street. I turned and gave the kid a slight nod and offered my hand.

“Rick.”

“Doug, Doug Hyland.” He grasped my hand. I was surprised at the power of his grip.

“Dougdoug.” I smiled.

“So you’re off to McMurray.” I suppressed a snort.

“Yeah,” Dougdoug enthused.

The moving truck was having trouble getting from one gear to another. I watched the truck grinding down the street. When the truck’s gears finally thudded into the right set of cogs, I turned back to the boy.

“What’s it like?” Being a... a Boomer?”

I studied the kid.

“In there,” he said, indicating the union hall, “the guys called you... a Boomer.”

This is getting old real quick, I thought.

“I wrote my pre-employment test,” the man-child said.

I smiled, a little. “We get so many shoe salesmen telling us how good they are, and when they get to Fort Mac they can’t tie a knot. You never know.”

“I’ve never sold shoes.”

I chuckled. In the middle of the laugh I caught myself. My face muscles ached from lack of use. “Shoe salesmen is what we call guys that try to fake their way in.”

“I’d... like to start booming. Be a Boomer,” Dougdoug blurted.

The laughter stopped. I wiped a rough hand over my chin. The gesture was not lost on the boy.

“My Dad does that,” he said.

“You’re a first-year apprentice. You think it might be a little early to start talking booming?”

“My cousin is a boomer in McMurray and he makes great money.” “I’ll bet he drives a huge truck.”

“Yeah, it’s really nice. It’s—”

“And he’s got a boat, trailer, and a quad too.”

Dougdoug looked at me.

“And he’s got alimony and child-support payments.”

“Yeah,” said the younger man, slow.

“You don’t just decide one day to become a Boomer. You just...” I searched for the perfect word, then decided to just blast. “It’s not movement that makes you a Boomer, it’s skills. You need to be the best welder, the best rigger, the best mechanic on the claim.”

“Boomers go from job to job, kinda like cowboys, right?”

I rubbed my face again. “You’re not catching what I’m pitching,” I said. “Most of them are money-hungry, and they come from everywhere. Listen to the talk in Fort Mac. All they talk about is money. All they talk about. Take a good look at the license plates up in McMurray. It’s a real eye-opener.”

Our breath hung fat and white in the frozen air.

“Look kid, a Shutdown is like is a football game, a game where everybody gets the shit beat out of them. But nobody lets you stop. There’s no time-outs, no rests between quarters. You play offence and defence. The best you can hope for is at the end of the day you aren’t hurt. And the noise! The noise is so loud it pounds your ears, face, even your chest vibrates. It’s everywhere. It never stops. Stories about how romantic booming is are usually told by people who were never there. And they only tell the good parts.”

“How so?” the kid asked.

“You’re working on a real bitch of a job. For two months. Then one night you go to the bar and see a naked pole-dancer and an old boilermaker scrapping. Which one are you going to talk about?”

“That really happen?”

“Slapped him so hard they found his false teeth under the band’s drums.” I smiled at the memory.

“When you tell it like that, Boomers sound like employed vagrants.”

“The only thing a Boomer can depend on is his skills and that the job is going to end soon. Boomers gotta keep moving. As soon as guys arrive at the shutdown, they start looking for the next one. I saw a boilermaker that drove seventeen hours through a blinding snowstorm from Thunder Bay to The Pas, Manitoba to get to a shutdown. When he finally got there, he was so tired he staggered.”

I shivered, and turned my collar up. The cold and the company was getting to me.

“A couple of shifts into the job, he started to squirm. Something was always wrong. The work was too dangerous, the foreman was an asshole, the hours too short. Come the first layoff, he’s gone. He’d heard about a shutdown in Sarnia, and he took off. Left halfway through the shift, didn’t even turn in his tools. Down the Trans-Canada, looking for another shutdown. Like a dandelion seed in the wind.”

I studied my hand. I’d never worn the wedding ring.

“A Boomer’s got no family. He knows a lot of guys by their first names, but nobody they could phone up and get invited over. The closest these guys got to a home is a fifth wheel.”

The boy’s innocent face was getting to me. I wanted to either shake him or hold his hand.

“You gotta have skills. If you don’t have the skills, you can run around all you want, but you are always going to be the last hired and the first laid off. That’s not a Boomer, that’s a vagrant. And it’s lonely, too bloody lonely.”

I reached for the door to end the conversation.

“The only thing good about booming is the money.”

THE ROAD

The winter sun was hard in the rear view mirror as the truck chased its shadow north. The music played, the tires hummed, trees and farms passed. My world became snow-covered fields sliding behind me like the engine’s rumble.

I left the outskirts of Edmonton around noon, heading north. Once I saw that unbroken horizon beyond that crack in the windshield, a shiver of freedom washed over me.

All those telephone lines, white lines on the road, tar streaks on the asphalt, everything disappears into a fuzzy blackness far out in the distance. I imagined getting so small I saw my body going inside that dot deeper and deeper. I saw where the road should end, but I knew I would never reach it. Sometimes the dot disappeared around a corner or down a hill, but it always came back when the highway straightened. It would swing away for a moment, teasing.

Makes you wonder. Was that what it would be like in a spaceship, going into a black hole? Getting darker and darker and smaller and smaller until you were so dark and so small you joined with all the black into a cosmic nothing?

There isn’t anything sweeter than the rumble of eight cylinders and four tires on an open road. The sound sank deep inside my heart, like being spellbound by thunderous music in the front row of a ZZ Top concert.

You have to know that at the other end of those chrome tailpipes there’s a thousand pounds of metal that means business. When I touched the gas, an angry sound rattled like a Gatling gun.

I played the CDs loud. The songs were raw, dripping of moonshine, smoky bars, and callused vocal cords. I sang along at the top of my lungs to the songs with four beats to the bar. Not much different from beating on a hollow log, but I’m going north on Highway 63, I’m going to McMurray.