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For rig families, oil gets in the blood

Out in the Gulf of Mexico, far past the brackish waters of Louisiana’s bayous, a chain of man-made islands stands stark against the horizon, metal gleaming in the sunlight. Some of these mechanical wonders float, some do not. They’re all lived on and in by the same sort of men, though — sturdy ones wearing logos like Hercules and Diamond stitched on the front of their uniforms.

Miles away from the blue-gray waters surrounding those platforms, wives write things like this in online blogs: “I have grown to love Wednesdays. They usually mean that either: A. My husband is half-way through his hitch, or B. He is coming home.” Most often there are children waiting, too, the kind who take a math advantage with them to school because they learn early how to count two weeks on, two weeks off, and mark days — sometimes whole months — on the calendar. For families like these, drilling is a livelihood that has gotten into their blood.

“It’s a good job,” admits Smithdale resident Clint Berryhill, who’s been steadily employed on rigs since 1999, when he and two friends drove to Lafayette to put in applications and were hired on the spot. Job hunters like Clint are still finding oil’s siren song hard to ignore today, and why not? Louisiana’s $72 billion oil industry is just a state away and has more than 172 different drilling interests offering employment in the Gulf alone.

With his own roustabout days far behind him, Clint has worked his way up, rising to the level of mechanic on board a drillship that searches for deep-water oil and gas reserves. It’s a job that includes dangerous tasks like conducting routine maintenance on 100-ton cranes, which is just one of the reasons his wife, Candace, says life can be hard on the families left behind.

“Besides the danger, I believe all of us oilfield wives would agree that if anything is going to break or stop working, it will happen while he’s gone,” the mother of seven explains. Her litany includes a car crushed by a tree limb, two alternator repairs, a broken washer and dishwasher.  “The worst was when he had to leave right after one of my C-sections.”

Candace is quick to mention that loneliness is part of the package, too, and that, combined with an above-average stress load, tends to make oilfield wives strong. “We have to be,” she acknowledges without emotion. “While they’re gone, our husbands depend on us to handle everything from the kids to the house to decisions regarding large purchases.”

Family separation is hard, and their work may be dangerous, but as most oil drillers will admit, they are compensated for those negatives. According to CNN Money, the average salary for rig workers and other industry personnel has been as much as $99,175 in recent years. That figure includes the wages of highly-skilled consultants and engineers, but even for someone with less than a year’s experience the average annual income was $66,923.

Numbers like these explain why Clint’s story is similar to others who choose to migrate Gulf-ward from Southwest Mississippi, where jobs can be hard to find and unemployment rates hover above the national average.

The Miller family of Ruth can relate. Jessica, a young mother of two, told me what it was like to wave goodbye to her husband, Josh, every 14 days. Her word pictures describing the first leg of his journey (which they took together) are vivid — the Kia Sportage loaded with Josh’s duffel bag and a stack of just-laundered sheets and towels, their children Ashley and Bryce in the backseat eyeing a pack of Legos that Jessica had specifically instructed them not to open, awkward hugs in the Dollar General parking lot where Joshua met co-workers for a 12-hour carpool commute.

“We tried to keep things as normal as possible, but Josh said he could sense me starting to withdraw the last day or so. I guess it’s just a way of coping.” 

At his worksite, Josh took on the role of go-to man, keeping the rig’s engines running properly, inventorying supplies, maintaining equipment and mentoring forehands. It was a tough, dirty job, but he said he liked most of it: “The worst part was you missed half of your family’s life — holidays, birthdays, other important events.” Eventually, though, the unpredictability of the oil industry that led Josh to seek another line of work.     

Rig families understand that, but for most of the roustabouts on deck and the roughnecks manning the drill, life on a mechanical island has rewards all its own.

“I’ve raised a family off of it, three kids, sent them to college, own my own home,” one attests. “It’s just a way of life. I don’t think I could go back to a 7-3 job.”

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.