Stone Musings #2
We’re waiting for daylight: Bill to bolster his argument that it can’t be done, and me to say it can. After a while the sun decides in my favor and Bill is pissed off. I think his boss told him that the contract money only allows for 3 out of 5 locations. He must have pressured Bill to come up with excuses for not doing them all.
I’m pissed too. Sure, I’m fresh out of school, but I’m trying to do my job, why can’t he just do his?
The crew is pissed. They take their cues from Bill. He’s the boss. What he says goes, and it embarrasses then that some dumbass college kid is trying to tell Bill he’s going do it anyway.
We get the drill rig set up on location, at the side of the road on a clear and cold North Dakota morning. The hillside rises above us on one side, and plunges down on the other. We’re in the badlands. The hillsides are innocent of vegetation, and banded with clay and sandstone, and coal. Sometimes I can look downhill and see what we’ll be drilling through for a few hundred feet. Sometimes I can look up and see what is no longer there, where I stand: old shorelines and river deltas, coal swamps and killing grounds.
It takes twice as long as usual to set up, to test the controls and get started drilling, but finally the earth starts to give as the drill bites down. Right now, with the hole so shallow, the drillers are just using high-pressure air jets from the drill bit to blow the cuttings back up the hole. If they didn’t the bit might overheat and we won’t pay for that kind of mistake. Soon though, they’re going to have to start blowing water mist into the hole to keep it going.
I’m working away looking at the bits of cuttings as they come to the surface in the mud that fills the hole. Yellow sand, we’re in a poorly cemented sandstone. Yellow-gray muck with the consistency of snot, bentonite clays. There were volcanoes here, then. Black to brown grains, hard, like metal. Some sort of black sand. The grains stick to a magnet. Was there a beach here also? Cool.
I’m taking a break for lunch when Bill comes back, shaking his head. They ain’t no return, he says, the mud’s going somewhere. We gotta stop drilling. Sign this so we can move on. Unexpected Conditions. It’s a form that says that USGS agrees to abandon the hole. They’ll get paid the full rate, anyway. I’m about to sign when he says, Told You So.
So, it’s an impasse. I won’t sign and he won’t move.
After a while I go look down the hillside. Somewhere down there the coal seam we were looking for should crop out on the side of the hill like a black streak. It isn’t there. There’s a sheet of brown liquid that sure looks like the drilling mud, working its way down the hillside. Damn!
You’re right, Bill, I say. We hit a coal seam that’s been weathered so much it’s like a big pipe. All the mud went into it and came out the side over there where the coal comes to the surface. It’s supposed to come back up the hole, carrying the cuttings with it for me to examine, lubricating the hole, and keeping the drill bit working.
He is right. We cannot drill further here, but I won’t sign to abandon this hole. I will sign to move it instead about a hundred yards or so, uphill.
Bill is having a fit. His joy at hearing the college kid give up was short lived. Whatta f***! Don’t you understand? It goes out. We can’t drill here.
He goes on and on.
We’re moving again, finally. It’s early afternoon and Bill and his crew are grinning like cats. Dumbass college kid. They’ll show me now.
We’ve moved the rig, about a hundred yards away and at least 30 yards up to the top of the hill. Bill’s won. I owe him a case of beer. He got the rig up to the top of the hill after I bet him he couldn’t.
I ask Bill if he wants to make another bet. Sure, he says. And I tell him, but you’ve got to do it like you’re really trying, and if we get down as far as the mud came out before, and it doesn’t come out again, we have to finish the hole, and you owe me two cases of beer and I don’t owe you any.
It’s dark now and the trip back seems endless. Bill is quiet but I can tell it’s really bothering him. After a while he asks how I knew.
It’s the way ground water works when it’s near the surface, I tell him. It tends to follow the surface slopes. If there’s a hill on the ground, there’s likely a hill in the water underneath. So it was likely that if we went to the top of the hill nearby, that the ground water would have stayed above the coal even during dry spells, and it wouldn’t have dried out and cracked like it did over there. Over there, where this all started.
You get that from books, he asks. I nod.
We’re back in town and Bill has gone in and bought me the two cases of beer he owes me. He’s not mad anymore and the crew doesn’t know what to think. By their standards one or the other of us should be the ‘winner’ and the other should be mad. They don’t understand why I’m not rubbing it in, and why Bill is okay with it.
There’s only one place to go eat that late at night in nowhere North Dakota: the bar. We order a Tombstone pizza and try not to gag. Six nights in a row, so far. Maybe I should have let them win after all. Then we could have gotten a steak. After a while everyone starts to unwind and the questions come from the rest of the crew. Bill tells them how it works. He knows it now and he’s the boss. Best for him to explain.
Back at the motel the night clerk gives me a wink. The beer’s all been put away, divvied up between the crew, waiting for them beside their beds, on ice. Bill won’t get any, but he doesn’t drink that much anyway. Tomorrow the crew will take me in as one of their own and Bill will see that and have to go along with them. They won’t tell him about the beer. It will be our secret.
The stone has its secrets also, grudgingly shared, but shared nonetheless. We learn about it in school and then go out into the world to learn still more. Sometimes we share our secrets with others. It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand. For them it is enough to know that the good earth gave them water to make a beer so clear and bitter that it forever reminds us of a North Dakota night, in the fall.