My son is working out west on the oil fields. He won’t be home for Christmas. How many other mothers in Nova Scotia are having similar conversations with their children across the miles, in the barren, frozen wasteland of Alberta?
Eli: It was minus 42 today, Maw.
Me: That’s cold. You dress warm?
Eli: I wear long underwear, two pairs of pajama pants, sweat pants, two turtlenecks, a sweater, a jacket, my work coveralls, two pairs of socks, two pair of gloves, a scarf, a touque and a polar bear wrapped around my shoulders. It’s not enough.
Me: Whaddaya do when you have to pee?
Eli: It ain’t easy.
The choice to work on the rigs is a strange one for my son. He’s educated as a personal trainer. Up until a few months ago, he didn’t know the difference between a pick axe and a jack hammer. Not that he isn’t resilient, his sisters took care of developing that part of his character, he just has never been mechanically inclined. Eli is witty, funny and charming, built like an ox, and so social it’s impossible not to like him. The oil rigs seem like the absolute last place he would ever choose to work.
Eli is my second child, having the questionable good fortune to grow up surrounded by his three sisters, Aunt Kate and Big Mumma. Demanding women, all of us. When Eli was little, his sisters buttered his toast for him because they couldn’t stand the way he held his knife. His mother mocked him for years over his bad penmanship. His youngest sister has fixed more broken-down cars than he has.
His sisters have taunted him for years, calling him Peli, or Penisface. They mocked his early efforts at romance, telling girls he was gay, teasing him when he was hungover, making grotesque “orgasm faces” with their friends when he came out of the shower. I’m convinced it was this sisterly abuse that made him tough enough to withstand the abuse which is the life of the Rig Pig.
And it is abusive. The weather, the long hours, the physically grueling tasks, the isolation. Nova Scotians work hard, we understand bad weather, we can sweat and grunt and get dirty with the best of them, but we do it with family. We do it with community and good times and a beer at the end of a long day. The boys on the rigs get up at four, drive two hours to the work site, slog in the frozen mud for eight, ten, twelve hours a day, drive two hours back to the camp where they quite often have to share a room with a stranger, eat, sleep, and do it all over again the next day. And the next, and the next. My boy is working fourteen days in a row. Sometimes more. And when I send him molasses cookies they’re stale by the time he gets back to his apartment in Edmonton and finds them crumbling in his mail box. That just ain’t right.
When Eli comes home… hopefully for a few days in the spring… he’s going to come into my classroom and talk to the kids about the reality of ‘working out west’. Without a trade, without experience and training, the life of the grunt is pretty bleak. Some of the kids in my classes talk about heading to Alberta after graduation. It’s the Land of Plenty, after all, and there’s no doubt that there’s money to be made. Eli often makes more than I do, with my two university degrees and ten years’ experience in a professional career, and that’s why he’s doing it. Logging the hours, paying off debt, saving for school. But it’s absolutely grueling work.
Eli: You never know how much weight you can actually lift,until you try to lift something you can’t.
Me: What do you mean?
Eli: The foreman said, “Eli, pick that up and move it over there.” I tried, but it was a million pounds and I couldn’t budge it. Then, the foreman said, ‘Youliftthatfuckingthing andmoveitthefuckoverhere beforeIfuckingkickyourfuckingass, youfuckinghearme?’
Me: Wow. What’d you do?
Eli: I lifted it.
Life on the rigs isn’t for the soft, the wimpy, the delicate. It barely sounds like it’s the life for any normal person at all, really. There’s very little training, very little tolerance of mistakes, very real danger… Eli had a week off when a machine nearly ripped his finger off. His glove has been yanked off his hand by a moving chain. A co-worker had his foot crushed. I tell him that I made all of his parts and pieces and he better come home with all of them still attached, or he’ll be grounded.
I want Eli to tell my students these things. I can barely make them pick up paper off the floor when they drop it, never mind get off their cell phones and pick up a pen. A kid told me recently that he couldn’t do any work because “it’s Monday morning, man. I can’t do work on Monday morning.” Another kid begged me, “go easy on us today, will ya? It’s Friday, can’t we just chill?”
Are these kids planning to go out west to make their millions? I hope not.
My son is going back to school to do paramedic training. He knows the rigs aren’t the life for him. They are just a means to an end for now… but that money is awful nice to have, and you don’t snub your nose at a good job, and yeah, it’s cold, but it’s only for a few months… that Nova Scotian work ethic is bred into our boys like breathing. But he won’t be home for Christmas, and he missed Thanksgiving, and I can’t send a turkey in the mail.
I’m proud of my boy. I love hearing his sense of humor when he talks about his job, and the crazy people he’s met and worked with. I’m amazed by his endurance, impressed that my child who didn’t butter his own toast is working with fierce machines in extreme conditions. But I worry. I want to feed him, or do his laundry, or some other menial Mommy task because I miss him.
Me: Are you eating ok?
Eli: Maw, I ate an entire chicken dinner without taking a breath. And then I ordered another one. And I ate that too. Send me cookies, ok?
We miss our boys all the time… the husbands, sons, brothers, and also the daughters and sisters who have made the trek across the prairies… but especially on the holidays. Here’s hoping they all stay warm, and that they all come home soon.
Merry Christmas Eli, Peli, Penisface… your family loves you!