Monday, August 22, 2011

Canadian Bacon

They have nicknames like Canadian Bacon, Puddle and Jimbo.  They sport tattoos, piercings, wild beards, bad teeth and hardhats.  They smoke, chew, spit and show up at first light in white Ford 350's hauling what look like moon rovers on low-boy trailers.  They unload and set out cross-country following survey lines drawn through fields, deep woods and marsh.  They move on rubberized dozer tracks and grind twenty foot deep shafts into the earth with hydraulic corkscrews drilling through soil, clay and solid rock.

Stone dust masks their faces.  Their steel tip boots and crusty coveralls are perpetually caked and splattered with dried mud. They might work eight or nine weeks straight without a day off. Six men on two rigs, drilling about one hundred three inch diameter holes in a twelve hour shift; stuffing each with a four pound dynamite charge complete with blasting caps, detonation wire and gravel back fill.

They study soiled maps, creased and freckled with overlaid squares denoting wooden stakes that fly blue, white, and fluorescent orange ribbons. Some tell them where to leave the road, some, which trail to follow.  A numbered tag on an orange line marks a charge site.

Bacon is from Alberta. He left his father's farm and started in the “patch” when he was eighteen. His second year he made over $85,000.  When he went home five years later he had a new pick-up but not a dime to his name.  Easy come easy go. His grin is young; his eyes shine blue with the hint of flaring gas wells. "We finished a job once and the supervisor offered to buy us pizza and beer. We’d been out around a hundred days.  One of guys about split a gut laughing. “Pizza and beer?” he said “How about a herd of whores to deliver it?”

Bacon's real name is Jason. He’s the Alpha dog, the crew manager, eighteen years in the oil fields. He’s worked all over the States, Africa too. In Tanzania they lived in mud huts and tents with a British military escort.  Local shaman tossed sand at him and cast spells on the crew. Natives pelted the trucks with stones as they passed down pitted dirt lanes cut from the jungle.

He’d earned nine hundred dollars a day plus a full course of malaria pills.  They drilled fifty foot holes for the charges, deep enough to see three miles down on the seismic. Bacon said they'd had a real young guy on the crew with them. “It was crazy, not good, a young kid with that kind of money in a world where everything’s for sale.   I never did find out what happened to him.”

It’s day fifty-eight when we meet.  Thirty charges left to set and then they all head home for a week off.  Bacon might take the crew to Williamsport, PA after that.  He says the company took him to dinner the night before but the money they offered sucked. He doesn’t negotiate; doesn’t need to.  There’s always another job waiting. He and his men hire on like sailors. The cropped salt and pepper beard, his weathered complexion and the thick gold hoops through both earlobes add to the swashbuckler mystique.

"I've got a nice house in Alberta. I tell the young guys to buy one. Invest the money.  I bought it five years ago and have spent exactly eighteen days there.  I also own a landscaping company near Ithaca, NY;  working commercial accounts like Lowes and McDonalds.  A buddy of mine, a lineman, decided he wanted to stay home. He owns twenty-five percent of the company.  It costs me six thousand a year just for insurance; can’t get hired without it.”

He leans against the truck twisting together the leads of two blasting caps to disable them.  He was sent back in today to “pull” a charge.  The surveyors had staked a hole by the base of a nine foot dam but should have been three hundred feet from the water.  "Not my job to pull ‘em.  I've done it as a favor a couple times. Now they think they can call on me all the time.  I'm the only one they'll trust to do it."

He shows me a soiled red plastic tube. The lower half is about a foot long. It holds the dynamite. There are two symmetrical holes at the top; they house the “AA” size detonators.  A second, slightly shorter tube, now twisted and disfigured, originally screwed into the base section to protect the caps and dynamite from moisture.  Charges like this, once planted, will wait unattended for a month or more until crews of “linemen” arrive to blow the holes.

The lead wires to the explosive are left coiled and concealed in a small pile of gravel beside the blast hole. Linemen locate and attach these to detonator cable, then walk back one hundred feet from the charge and blow the hole. If all goes as intended, the ignited TNT will send sound waves a mile or more down into the earth. These will be “photographed” by one of the twelve hundred dollar seismic recording packs placed adjacent to the blast site and the results will be instantly transmitted to a GPS tracking satellite.

About five percent of the holes misfire or "blow out,” sending a volcanic hailstorm of crushed stone, water and mud into the air and onto the hard hats of the crew. A charge mistakenly set too shallow can leave a six-foot crater. Things can get really nasty if a lineman gets lazy. Skimp on the repetative one hundred foot hike and it isn't hard to imagine the tragedy that might result.

To remove the pre-set charge, Bacon has had to add a special spear hook bit to the hydraulic drill.  Alone, he has maneuvered the diesel-powered track rig over the three-inch diameter bore hole so that the auger can twist unimpeded down the twenty-foot shaft until he "feels" the dynamite tube.  Then, with the skill of a neurosurgeon operating with chisel and hammer, he edges the drill bit six inches into the tube’s hollow plastic top.  Should he advance too far, there is a good chance of hitting the blasting caps, which require only six pounds of pressure to detonate.

The day's first attempt was foiled when the explosive’s lead wires became wrapped around the spear bit and snapped off.  He has had to back the rig out and untangle the mess.  On the second drop he successfully pierces the casing and hooks the charge. With light taps on the hydraulic control levers he eases the explosives toward the surface.  Five feet below his rig, the live charge snags on a stone and refuses to come up any further.

"Almost thought I'd have to get Jimbo down there to help me."  Jimbo is an immense, red bearded, tobacco spewing, three hundred and fifty pound, Irishman.  Bacon’s eyes twinkle.  “Problem is, a boy that size might not make it back out on his own steam and then I'd really be in trouble."

Luckily, creative maneuvering of the drill rig manages to wiggle the charge free. Now the two sections of explosives are laid out in the bed of the pick-up.  Bacon pulls a battered and dusty I-phone from his pocket and holds it up for examination. "Five hundred bucks for this and they don't last long out here."

He aims the phone's camera at the twisted remnants of tubing and snaps off a couple photos that he will e-mail to Texas.  He shoves the worn cell phone back in his pocket and points to a rotted maple tree some seventy feet from the truck. "If that charge went off at the base of that tree, not only would the stump come down, but the concussion would be like a body slam to the chest; knock you right off your feet."

Up the road a thousand feet a black pick-up turns into the farmhouse driveway.  It’s Frank, one of the project supervisors. He has called earlier looking for Bacon.  He has a bonus for him; two hundred dollars for pulling the charge.  Bacon's blue eyes go gray at the mention of the money. "It wasn’t my job to pull that charge and I don't need his money.  They should make the surveyors correct their own mistakes."

His truck door pulls shut and the idling diesel inches forward. The shine has returned to the Canadian’s eyes.  He wings a glance over his shoulder toward the pond. "No finger hole in the dike today.  Mission accomplished.”  He grins and lightly slaps the side of the truck as if it were the flank of a horse. “Maybe I’ll be back in a couple years to help you spend up some of that gas money.  Lord knows I know how." 

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