I’ve held some odd jobs in my time, but none of them seemed to be as dangerous as being a swamper in the oil field. I’ll never forget my first ride out to the rig site when the guy sitting next to me in the Chevy Suburban said, “Watch your fingers, you don’t want to lose those before you go to law school.” That wasn’t exactly what I was expecting to hear within the first 15 minutes of working for a new employer.
About a month prior, I decided to move from Salt Lake City, Utah to my hometown of Vernal, Utah. My home town has been the site of several booms in the oil field and an equal number of busts. At that time, however, Vernal was experiencing one of its largest booms and many people in Vernal were forming upstart oil field companies and quickly becoming millionaires.
The job market out in the field was booming and the pay was really good. These oil guys seemed to have more money than they knew what to do with and I only had 4 months until I was picking up my family and leaving Utah for law school in Indiana. It seemed obvious to me at the time that I should quit my job at the USPS and get a job in the oil field in order to save up some cash and help pay for law school.
My father worked his contacts in the small oil town and got me a job with a trucking company as a swamper. I had no idea what a swamper was when my dad told me about the position and I’m pretty sure he still doesn’t know what a swamper is. For that matter, I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone outside of Utah who knew the definition of swamper. Anyway I told my dad that I would take the position and figure it out later.
A swamper is essentially a grunt worker who follows giant trucks around and hooks the trucks to the various pieces of the oil rig for its transport. If there’s anything that you learn when you see an oil rig up close, it’s that oil rigs contain huge pieces of equipment. Regardless of how big the equipment was, the trucks and using ramps and wenches and gin poles would take apart every last piece of the oil rig and transport it.
I followed my new employer’s instructions and purchased several pairs of Carhart overalls and a good pair of waterproof steel toe boots and headed to my first day of work as a swamper.
I learned pretty quickly just how dangerous and demanding this job was. Several swampers within the previous 3 or 4 months before I arrived had lost their fingers on the job. Usually when a swamper loses a finger, it is because the swamper stops paying attention for just the briefest of moments and puts his hands in the wrong place, resulting in the fingers being smashed off by a piece of equipment. Looking back at my time as a swamper, there were probably a dozen moments where I was within a fraction of a second of losing my fingers or being killed by falling 1,000 pound pieces of metal.
It was a demanding job physically, too. It required 18 to 20 hour days of hard strenuous labor and mentally it was even more challenging. The harsh atmosphere that people come to expect after watching such shows as Discovery’s Deadliest Catch and History’s Axe Men doesn’t come close to the mental berating new swampers took in the oil field. Meaning, I’ve been cussed at in every possible way imaginable.
Despite the dangers that came with the job and the mental and physical stress it placed on me, none of that seemed to do as much damage to me as the job did to my marriage.
The atmosphere in the oil field, and probably in other similar jobs, was really difficult not to take home with me at night. Casey started to notice that I became less and less caring. And my temper, for the first time in my life, seemed to become a problem. I noticed that when I got home if something didn’t go just right, I would get upset almost immediately. It makes perfect sense now because that’s the attitude in the oil field. If something doesn’t go right immediately, even if it is the smallest of problems, the answer is to always yell until the problem is resolved.
I never yelled at my wife or Addie, but it took quite a while for that instinct of immediate anger to leave. That has to be part of the reason my wife struggled so much as I went through law school. I went straight from the oil field right into my studies, so there never was a time for us to get reacquainted with each other. I went from working 18 hour days, 6 to 7 days a week, straight to law school where I studied 18 hours a day for 6 to 7 days a week. My wife didn’t have the chance to spend time just with me so she could remember who it was she married, and I didn’t get a chance to spend time away from those long hours so I could recapture who I had been prior to the oil field and remember why it was I wanted to be married to the lady who slept in my room.
That’s one of my bigger regrets in life. If I had made time with my wife, gone on a vacation just with her, or done something for some amount of time so we could recapture that fire, maybe we wouldn’t have gone through the struggles that nearly ended our marriage. The more and more I think about it, the more and more I realize that married couples need a break from life every year or so, just to spend time with each other so they can recapture some of that magic that existed early in the marriage.
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