Optimism as Seen from Sea Level

by Jim McElduff

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I keep thinking about long treks and optimism. The mechanics of the first don’t require that I understand anything except the drudgery of one foot in front of the other. And understanding the second has always been beyond me. In a formal sense, I see Optimism vaguely in the distant mountain range somewhere between the peaks of Love and Certainty. The autism I feel in my mouth when I chew on amorphous ideas of this type doesn’t mean that the concepts don’t roll around in my head. I just never know what to say about them.

On a break during the long drive back from Arkansas last week, I stayed for the night in Nashville with a group of old friends. Some of them I hadn’t seen for three or four years. Two in the group were physicians, and it was my conversations with them that reminded me once again of the bitter statistical portrait of my 52nd year. One talked as though he was channeling my oncologist, basically saying, “Maybe they will invent a new drug.” The other was mum, as though he was standing in the dark holding a hand over the beam of his flashlight.

I finished the trip on Tuesday and sat in the chemo chair for five hours the next day. Afterwards, I came home to two sweet messages. One was delivered in an email, and the other in old English. The email closed by saying, “You can you can you can.” The other message was hand delivered across the bed of a pickup truck by my neighbor, the one who 64 years ago walked from the beach at Anzio to the Italian Alps, with Germans shooting at him most of the way. He said, in the middle of a conversation about driving on mountain roads and without bidding from me, “I fit that war and I always knew I was a-coming back. I always knew.” So with those encouragements, I will tell you what I know about optimism and walking the long walk.

In the 1970s I worked offshore in the Gulf of Mexico on a crew surveying new locations for oil wells. These locations had to be marked so that drilling rigs the size of city blocks would know where to park. Satellites had not yet come into use in the Gulf, so marking these locations required that lean young men ride on boats, scamper across the I-beams atop towering derricks, and use now ancient equipment–all in the interest of measuring angles and distances. It was fundamentally land surveying, but 100 miles from the nearest particle of soil.

The crew I worked on had four members. Two, a crew chief and buoy hand, cruised around on a boat dropping alignment buoys in the water. The two others set up surveying equipment on distant platforms. These far flung platforms were built around established oil wells. They were used to extract the oil and push it through pipelines to the shore. We used platforms that were normally five to ten miles from the point where the drilling rig would eventually come to rest.

Approaching them from the water, these big stacks of yellow steel looked like giant insects upended in a shallow pond. In fact, they were the top 100 feet or so of a structure that extended 400 to 600 feet to the bottom of the Gulf. From the surveyor’s point of view, these outposts were forlorn in that they were abandoned metal hot plates—scorching hot—coated in an almost viscous layer of salt. And worse, they were bereft of a toilet, a drink of water, and the least scrap of shade. They were a hell of a place to spend a week by yourself.

The crew chief and buoy hand lived a life of comparative luxury on the survey boat. Their bodies were air conditioned to a degree appropriate for preserving meat and fed by fat, French-speaking Houma Indians straight from the bayou. This crew, who were mostly from the Dardar clan along Bayou LaFouche, had an infinite capacity for practical jokes. They remain noteworthy in my memory as much for their square feet as for their cuisine and good humor. A couple of years ago after Hurricane Katrina, I was working in the area with a native of Grand Isle. When I expressed dismay regarding the shape of the Dardar feet, she told me the Houmas’ feet evolved that way to ease walking through the swamps. During the oil boom of the seventies, which brought them out of the swamp, they practically lived on the work boats that plied the Gulf, fishing, cooking, and yah-yahhing all day long.

On the other hand, the two guys marooned on the unmanned platforms operated on thinner margins. Aside from the survey equipment, these guys, of which I was one, were set off on separate platforms with a sleeping bag, a tarpaulin, and a 60-quart cooler filled with all the Vienna sausages and hot Pepsi they could consume in a week.

There was only one way to get yourself on an unmanned platform: grab a rope and swing Tarzan-style from the survey boat onto an open steel grate that formed the landing deck. The survey boats had long back decks, and as the captain backed towards the landing deck, countering wind and currents and waves and swells, my job was to stand at the stern and reach up for the rope just as the boat touched the platform while sliding over the crest of the largest swell. Of course, you could never tell which swell in a set was going to be the biggest. If you misjudged on this point, you could count on the boat slamming you into the platform as it rode the big wave you had been anticipating. As the boat closed in on its target, water moved in every direction. It swirled between the platforms’ barnacle-encrusted legs and shot up in geysers between the boat and the waiting yellow steel. Beneath the turmoil, it was not uncommon to see barracuda and sharks patrolling in the water beneath the rigs. In middling rough seas, the waves bottomed out 15 feet or so below the open steel landing. At the top of the swell, you could practically jump onto the platform from the boat. However, avoiding use of the rope in this manner was thought, even by this crowd, to be risky, because people tended to be squashed between the boat and the platform. If you could grab the rope at the most fortuitous coincidence of these calamitous factors, none of which you, a completely naïve 22-year-old child from Arkansas, had one iota of control over, the boat would instantly plunge ten or fifteen feet and you would swing like Tarzan comfortably onto the landing as if Jane herself was nuzzling your shoulder. No problem. Even with my then severely limited understanding of love, these were not details of the new job that I shared with my mother.

Survey perches on the unmanned platforms were often on the heliport at the very top of the structure or on a slightly lower deck. We set up in exposed corners with wide-angle views of the Gulf, never less than 80 feet or so above the water. We were ordinarily isolated on these platforms many miles from the nearest other human for a week to ten days.

Our work before arrival of the drilling rig took two or three days. The race to survey and place all of the alignment buoys was heightened by our anticipation of the rig’s first appearance on the horizon. When it came, the top of the derrick would first appear as a dot on the edge of the sea where no other distant platform or rig had been earlier. Slowly the derrick would emerge from beyond the curve of the earth–a shimmering gray mirage at the absolute edge of visibility. Within an hour, the underlying platform would rise. Finally, a trio of great oceangoing tugs would slip above the horizon, laboring to pull the mammoth onto the location we had marked.

Now that you more or less understand the risks I was negotiating in the Gulf of Mexico in 1977, I will add to the mix a hurricane. On one sweltering late summer day, the boss radioed from the survey boat to say that a hurricane had entered the Gulf. It was coursing northwest into the area where we were working, and the Coast Guard had ordered an evacuation of all workers to the beach. But before turning tail, he said we would quickly wrap up our project. It wouldn’t take but another 18 hours or so. We were young, not extravagantly compensated, and the legal art of wrongful death litigation had not yet fully blossomed.

On that day, you didn’t have to be a Houma or have a two-way radio to know something was up. We had been out there for a week of clear skies, and in the last six hours the sky had turned from incendiary blue to a gathering patchwork of little gray scuttling clouds. They were traveling with the purpose and force of a Greek phalanx. By midday, the wind had picked up from a dead stillness to probably 20 miles per hour.

My boss on that rig move was a man named Alan Shackleford. As I am now exactly 30 years older than I was that summer, I hope one day to find him again to make sure that what I am about to tell you was not a dream.

In the afternoon, the winds grew steadily to 30 or 40 miles per hour. The sky above the Gulf gradually thickened into a dark gray ceiling. The reflecting gray seas filled with Portuguese men-of-war, those beautiful blue gelatinous beasts that seem to sail on the seas as miniature fairy tale ships. From my aerie on a corner of an upper deck above the mounting seas, I watched as thousands of these wickedly stinging monsters were pushed by the approaching hurricane in the direction of home.

By nightfall, we were starting the final round of measurements necessary to complete our calculations of the rig’s final location. On the dark horizon, the lights of boats and helicopters were making straight lines in the direction of Padre Island on the coast of Texas.

When we finally finished at two in the morning, our survey boat headed towards my platform to pick me up. The winds were bracing. At about three the boat arrived, and Mr. Shackleford swung aboard my landing deck. The Dardars pulled the boat a half mile away to keep from being bashed into the platform by the surging winds and the confusing currents.

Mr. Shackleford had radioed ahead saying that I should leave my equipment in place until he could inspect my notes. If there were mistakes, there was the chance that we would continue surveying through the night even with the Gulf now largely empty of boats and men and with the winds howling through the open yellow steel structure.

He raced up the steps to my post. I handed him my little paper field book and watched as he read the notes. The wind rocked me and rattled the equipment boxes. He gave a look of acceptance and moved to set the field book on a box. As his fingers loosened around the book, it sailed over the railing and into the night. With all four of our hands on the rail, we leaned over and watched it waft down into the darkness, almost disappearing as it hit the black water.

Without a word, we ran as fast as we could back down the steps to the open landing. There, with the bright lights of the platform behind and above us, we watched the little paper book floating away into the darkness. The seas were crashing and heaving between the four giant yellow legs of the platform. We looked at each other as the key to a week’s worth of work sailed for the Bay of Campeche. I stripped to my socks and dove in. The little yellow field book was 50 yards away, or maybe 200. I have no idea. I swam with full round strokes until I reached the book. I think it took a minute or two. I grabbed it, clamped it between my teeth, and turned toward the platform. This huge, ten-story mantis of steel looked like a dot on the horizon. Holding my arm straight out, I could have hidden it with my thumbnail.

I started swimming towards it. As I swam, I thought of all the sharks, stingrays, barracuda, and men-of-war in the deep seas between my thrashing limbs and the continental shelf. I could feel all of them looking up hungrily at the pitifully small piece of water-sodden bait dangling between my legs. I was 22. That was my only concern.

The water was a little cool and the sky as black as coal. I swam with my head down until I was winded. It seemed like forever. I paused and looked up at the platform as it appeared and disappeared between the swells. It was exactly the same size it had been when I started swimming long, long ago. I realized there was a current flowing away from the platform into the middle of the Gulf of Mexico at exactly the same speed with which I was trying to swim towards it. I never felt calmer, until maybe now.

Somehow, this boy from the inland hell of east Arkansas, who had never even seen a clear blue ocean until being deposited in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, started tacking into the current. I swam as if I was in a cow pond in Cross County on a sunny Sunday afternoon, zigging, zagging, and taking my time. Time was lost.

Eventually the platform began to grow. At some point I could make out my skinny boss in his blue jeans and a white tee shirt. The first detail that came clearly into sight was his eyes. They occupied most of his face. When I finally came within 15 or 20 feet of the platform, I stopped and treaded water.

The swells crashed and swirled between the legs of the platform and pitched me up and down. I was a good 15 feet beneath the landing at the bottom of the swells and five feet beneath it at the top. The legs of a platform are huge, 20 or 30 feet in diameter. You can’t shimmy up them in even the best of circumstances. Below the water line, the harsh yellow paint was entirely encrusted with white barnacles. Barnacles and oyster shells occupy the niche in nature that was filled by razor blades after the industrial revolution.

I was treading and treading. Whether this went on for one minute or twenty, I have no idea. I hadn’t the vaguest plan for getting out. Mr. Shackleford’s face looked as white as his tee shirt. I treaded water, trying to stay close to the platform, and backpedaled to keep from being dashed against the barnacles.

I drifted over towards a corner of the platform, surveying the giant leg. It was the only tangible link between where I was and where I wanted to be. As I treaded water and inspected the barnacles, a huge swell pushed me towards the leg. Just as it shoved me into the razor sharp reef of barnacles, I got my knees up between my chest and the shells. My feet, encased in those lovely white athletic socks, were walking. And as the wave continued to push at my back, I continued walking up the leg.

It was a giant wave, and it pushed and pushed until Mr. Shackleford’s feet were almost within reach. Just as I was perched at the momentary apex of the swell, he reached down as easily as he would bend over to pick up the morning paper out of a dewy lawn and grabbed my arm, swinging me up and onto the landing. The wave receded, and I handed him the field book.

I am a stranger now, as I was that day, to optimism. For now, Optimism is the miniscule oil platform, seen in my memory through a briny film as it wobbles on a tilting horizon. It is the distant Italian Alps as they looked to my neighbor on the beach at Anzio.

All I can say is that one day I hope to tell a younger neighbor from across the bed of a truck, “I fit that war and I always knew I was a-coming back.”

At 17, James McElduff hitchhiked from his home in Wynne, Arkansas, to Maine, where he worked in a rock quarry. He dropped out of college during his freshman year to head to New York City, finding jobs there cooking in restaurants, including the Waldorf-Astoria. His next job took him to the Gulf of Mexico, as described above, to work as a surveyor on oil rigs. Eventually, he went back to school, obtaining a degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Arkansas.

As an environmental engineer for 23 years, Jim channeled his love for the mountains of North Carolina—his new home—into his life and work. In 2001, he co-founded Altamont Environmental, Inc., and was a member of the Buncombe County Planning Board for seven years (two of those as chairman). He was a fervent advocate for sustainable water management.

He loved travel, cooking, eating, building rock walls, and the art of conversation. Jim was in the process of investigating the distillation of apple brandy when he was diagnosed with cancer. Surrounded by family and friends, including his wife, artist Kathy Triplett, and numerous Altamont employees and associates, Jim was laid to rest in his own apple orchard on April 17, 2010.  (For more about Jim, see High Stakes: Remembering Jim McElduff, by Tommy Hays.)