Bruce and Eileen on a tour of California’s Oil Patch.
The boys on the rig. Leather hard, raw boned just as likely to fight as breath. The men who spudded in, made hole and spent their money hell-raisin’, drinking and fist fighting just for fun.
Bruce Hall learned to Boss. To be a Boss, get men to work, move the job along, not an easy thing to do. Turnover was high, roughnecking wasn’t a job for many. Bruce Hall earned a reputation for handling men and because he was fair, he had hands waiting to work for him. He ran a safe rig, he organized to reduce waste and worked hard to bring wells in on time.
A man who laborers for a living is always looking for someone who can make him money. You can classify bosses by their many different styles. Each one can be more or less effective and many times will attract men who see things as they do. Mostly farm boys worked the rigs in those days who were used to hard work and seeing an opportunity to do a job that has a ladder you can climb to a better life. They brought with them attitudes inherited from their families, some times good, some times not so good. Bruce had to, each and every day stir a diverse group of young men to do what was needed. None of those skill could be found in a book. Close observation and an innate ability to see a path that motivates the man is required.
Bruce thought constantly about how to improve his crews. He taught what he had learned form others and his own observation. He knew by now that companies had one interest only; profits. Profits came from speed making hole, safety; no lost time accidents and most of all forethought. A man that uses his experience to anticipate problems on the rig and puts the fix in first is worth a great deal.
He had another advantage, his wife. Eileen stayed home, raised their children, kept their home and most important of all understood that his job had to come first and foremost. When the phone rang he had to go. She never knew when he would be back. If something happened on a rig he stayed out until it was fixed and back on line. He might be gone days. In the twenties it might not be possible to call her. Individual rigs had shacks, the so-called Doghouse, where the trip log was kept and clothes were dried. It was a place to get out of the weather but had no phone. Typically the best he could do was send a note by someone going into town. Eileen didn’t fret, it served no purpose. Perhaps her early life living with her self-absorbed and itinerant mother prepared her for this one. What ever you think her life was, it was most definitely hers and she embraced it. In all of her life she never lost her sense of adventure. They both did whatever had to be done and the children never heard either of them complain. Ever. My mother told me they never fought or argued. Eileen went where Bruce went. They were yoked together.
Something they learned early on was to stay away from the camps. Though interviews with oil patch families speak of the camaraderie and neighborliness of people, they helped each other when they could. No one had much so it was impossible to put on airs. Most of the problems revolved around the men. Spending their pay at the saloons, gambling on payday, chasing the floozies didn’t make for a happy home.
Some companies set up tables for crap games on payday and had a tent where a man could have a woman. Even though it was the depression, liquor was readily available and the company would set ’em up. They were guaranteed to get some of that pay envelope back.
Bruce knew that if he needed or wanted to know something about drilling operations he had to get it himself. There were no books to read, no instructions. You asked questions, you watched everybody on the crew. You had to figure out what worked and what didn’t. In the twenties, full time geologists were just beginning to put together the science of drilling. Oil bearing rock and sand could be convoluted, twisting and turning through the rock strata, sometimes more than a mile down. A good well could be ten feet from a dry hole. Some fields were huge like those along the Kern River. The Kern Front Field where Bruce worked was ten miles long and 2.5 miles wide and at it’s peak was home to over 9,000 producing wells. It’s best year, 1929, it pumped 4,535,039 barrels. The two fields along the Kern just to the north were even larger.
The amount of oil being pumped was vast. So vast, in fact, that for the last fifty years there had been little though of conservation. Excess oil was stored in pits and in some places simply allowed to run out onto the ground. Creeks and gullies ran black withe oil and mud waste. Production was everything. Hundreds of companies for the past twenty years had been in a race to find and exploit new fields and bank the money made that little thought was given to what might happen next.
The cost per barrel had slowly declined from its peak of more than $3.00 in 1920. Companies countered this loss of revenue by cutting wages. After the war oil workers had begun unionizing in California with the usual back and forth of walkouts, shut downs and the consequent attacks by law enforcement in the pay of the corporations, bringing in scabs to man production sites. This back and forth had led to the 8 hour day and a rise in pay during WWI. Companies had put up a fight but during and right after the war prices were high enough that they found they could maintain profits and the bosses could still take a ship to England and shoot grouse with the lords and ladies. Just for a bit, all was good on both sides.
Standard and Union Oil were among the first to raise wages and also amongst the first to go after the oil-workers when price began to decline. Big companies began to lay off the men on company payroll and began using independent contractors to do the drilling. This allowed them to put much of the financial risk of drilling on the independents. This increased the pressure on the drill crews to make hole in a hurry because thats how they were paid. A price per foot was negotiated with the drilling contractor, with the added attraction for the owners of a specific depth of hole, and beyond which you won’t be paid. As always the low bidder won the right and the opportunity to role the dice on profit. Make well, get paid, dry hole not. Payday for the crew came when the well came, if.
For Bruce the upshot was that if he was able attract good men, highly trained and motivated he could drill in a hurry and finish with money still in the contract which was the company profit. If he couldn’t, he’d be looking for another job.
Good crews that work together were a necessity. A winning team tends to attract good players which makes it better. The problem is there are not enough really good players to go around. Perhaps his baseball career helped him understand this. Men that get along and work as a team need a good coach. Bruce was that man.
There is an old saying that a man who works with his hands “Needs only a strong back and a weak mind.” No one who takes his lunch in the “Doghouse” on a drill rig and reads Shakespeare is going to escape ridicule. If you have a book with anything but pictures of naked women you are probably in for some grief. Stories abound. You might have to be good with your fists.
Over on a Standard well, a fight that quickly included an entire crew, roughnecks, pumper, motorman and mudman, something like you might see in a John Wayne movie got out of hand and a young worm, a Dutchman took a shot to the head with a “dumb” wrench. His skull was fractured and he died the next day, nailed into a plain pine box and buried. No one knew who to notify or apparently his real name. No charges were filed or the sheriff even notified, life in the oil patch could be cheap. The next day they same crew was back to making hole.
Two brothers who worked in the fields around Taft were known to jump down from the drilling floor and go at it at frequent intervals. Each one had wins in which his brother lay in the oil and mud around the rig while he other crowed over his success. By all rights they were both good hands and had no trouble finding work plus they offered some entertainment to break up a dull day. The brother with the false teeth always took ’em out before ceremonies commenced, that was his advantage.
Over in Oil City, a man’s wife, he was a first class Toolie, came home and caught him in bed with his floozie and run both him and her off. The next day she come out to the rig in an old Ford, walked right up to him on the floor, commenced to hitting him and after a bit off that pulled a little .32 out of her purse and shot him in the butt, twice. Satisfied, she took him to the hospital to be sewed up. Next day he showed up for his tour, wife drove him to work. All was settled.
The fields were full of uneducated, men who worked hard and made their fun where they could. In the twenties men still carried pistols in their pockets, spent their money like water and would still show up for work. Something in his character made Bruce different. They were careful to stay away from the trouble that plagued the oil camps. Three little children and their bond kept them at a distance form the wilder side of things.
Bruce and Eileen both had little formal education but they were smart. Bruce understood where the money was. Pipeliners, truck drivers, and roughnecks didn’t make the money, Tool Pushers and Drillers did. The way up from the bottom was to learn everything to know about putting in a well.
Next: Chapter Eleven, Shooters, Torpedo’s, Whipstocks and the Christmas Tree.