I grew up in the north woods of Michigan, graduating from high school in 1975. Guys my age were exhaling deeply; the Vietnam War had officially ended a mere thirty days before our diplomas were handed out. Country boys like me fit the profile of a conscript to be handed a rifle and sent off into the jungles of Southeast Asia. Uncle Sam wasn’t dictating our post graduation plans.
It was back when high paying, blue-collar jobs were plentiful, but only if you knew the right people, or were related to someone with connections. A job at one of the Big Three factories was the dream: $40,000 working on a mindless assembly line in Saginaw, Flint, or Detroit. Then there was Consumers Power, Mich Con, or hanging iron. However I had no connections and wasn’t interested in college. I mustered a 2.3 GPA in high school, not applying myself on the rare occasions that I managed to show up.
Five ugly years passed and the country was mired in a deep recession. My resume was congested with the jobs they now say that only migrant workers will perform. I was desperate to claw my way above the average wage manure pit of $10,000 a year; but it appeared there was no way out of my minimum wage quandary.
Then Ayatollah Khomeini booted the Shah from power and seized 152 American hostages. The ensuing Iranian Oil Embargo jacked the price of crude to $35 a barrel, up from $4 in the early seventies. Jimmy Carter dialed down the White House thermostats, donned a sweater during fireside chats and hoped for the best.
The only bright side of the dilemma was the resulting oil boom: by 1981 a record 4,500 rigs were boring for gas and oil nationwide. That’s when I joined the roughneck ranks, hiring on with Drobins’ Rig 8 in June—making $30,000 plus, working as a worm.
Training programs were nonexistent back then; you were educated on the fly. Safety meetings were nothing more than a once a week, ten minute break to gulp down a few bologna sandwiches. If you made it a month without a lost time injury and remembered to sign the kill book at the end of your shifts, you were rewarded with a dozen pairs of gloves.
I broke my neck to get into writing after serving eight years in the oil patch—quite literally. In June 1990 I was choppered to Covenant Hospital in Saginaw Michigan after a bad auto accident. After six weeks in their Intensive Care Unit, I landed in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan’s spinal cord rehab facility. I regained the use of my arms during my six month stint, but my fingers and legs remained frozen in neutral. I was first introduced to using a computer at U of M’s Rehab Engineering Department.
I remained in Ann Arbor after discharge, moving into the Michigan Institute For Spinal Cord Injuries. I focused further on therapy there, attempting to regain function and hopefully walk away—which I vowed that I would do from day one. I also enrolled in classes at Washtenaw Community College while I was at the Institute, hedging my bets as a thirty-four year old freshman.
It was just before Christmas in 1991 when I looked in the mirror and could tell by the eyes of the man looking back that I wouldn’t be donating my wheelchair to charity. I had moved into an apartment and the stark realities of living with a disability were settling in. I was going through the motions, finishing Comp I and Intro to Computers, staring at the icy Huron River Dam on the commutes to and from school.
It’s odd how certain things fall from the sky just when you need them. I bought a Lou Reed cassette at the the Briarwood Mall one night: the lowest point in my journey looking back. The lyrics from a song kicked me square in the face, or maybe the rear-end. It was titled "Magic And Loss (The Summation)".
“They say no one person can do it all
But you want to in your head
But you can't be Shakespeare and you can't be Joyce
So what is left instead
You're stuck with yourself and a rage that can hurt you
You have to start at the beginning again
And just this moment
This wonderful fire started up again
When you pass through humble, when you pass through sickly
When you pass through, I'm better than you all
When you pass through anger and self deprecation
And have the strength to acknowledge it all
When the past makes you laugh and you can savor the magic
That let you survive your own war
You find that that fire is passion
And there's a door up ahead, not a wall”
I signed up for one winter class: Creative Writing I with Dr. Hal Weidner. My little black and white Mac was my therapist and coping mechanism. I got lost on the machine, writing for hours: hunting and fishing stories, memoirs, fiction, and keeping a journal as Hal encouraged.
I wrote a short story about golf among other things during that semester. Golf had been a pursuit of mine as a walking man—more like a demon. The story was titled “The Trap People” and Hal suggested trying to get it published. So I printed it up and sent it off to Golf Illustrated in early 1992. A few months went past and I’d forgotten about it when John Poinier, the Assistant Editor called. “Your story is under consideration,” he said.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
He laughed. “That means we haven’t thrown it into the trash yet.”
It was published in their March 1993 issue and I got a check for $2,500. They filed for Chapter 11 three months later, so I joked with friends that my story was so bad it put them under.
Another short story that I wrote that semester, “The Bottom Feeder” was published in Northern Spies, a Washtenaw Community College publication that was open to current and former students.
I knew that writing wasn’t easy, especially without the use of my hands. I type on average at ten words a minute, using plastic splints that fit over my hands. But I figured that I had a handle on the writing craft: two submissions and two publications. I found out soon after that the publishing world is a dark village and that I was no Hemingway. It was back when most periodicals were kind enough to send rejection notices; the New Yorker’s were the best.
I took Laura Kasishke’s Creative Writing II class in 1993 and made my first attempt at writing about drilling for oil. “Uncle Stan” was the title of a 1,200 word short story about breaking out as a worm. Stan, a seasoned derrick-hand was the first roughneck to give me a chance; the first to speak to me in an OSHA approved decibel. Laura liked the story but agreed with me that it was tedious, trying to explain the different jobs, rig components, and tasks on the fly.
Laura had just won an award for "Wild Brides," her first book. Along with her obvious writing talent, what I remember most about Laura was her editorial gift that she shared at WCC. Once a week each student would bring in a story or poem to read to the class of 25, with copies for everyone. After reading our work, a ten minute quiet time would occur while Laura and fellow students jotted notes on their individual copies—suggestions, praise, or disdain were shared. Laura was always the first to break silence; speaking to the writer with ideas on where to expand, move this paragraph here, delete this... It always astounded me at how quickly she could whip a ten or twenty page story into shape—in merely ten minutes. But on the occasion that she suspected a student wasn’t giving their work a decent effort, Laura had no qualms about giving them a verbal thrashing.
I graduated in 1997 with an Associate’s Degree and left Ann Arbor for Midland where I now live. I kept at the oil field stories over the years among other things. “Dealing with the daily unadulterated crap,” as Jimmy Buffet writes. Twenty-five or thirty of them littered the screens of my various computers as time marched on.
Then I committed to them full time eighteen long months ago—combining some while ditching others, which is never easy. You get attached to certain stories or passages and feel obliged to hang on them: like an old dog you’re reluctant to put down. I added a glossary to free the stories of the mud bogs created by using explanations of “rig speak.” Uncle Stan evolved into “Oil Field Trash” two decades after its inception: the 31,000 word main story in my book. The glossary took on a life of its own—a novel within a novel at over 12,000 words. I whittled six other short stories into shape; generating what I thought was a somewhat presentable book by November 2012.
No one had read any of the stories at that point. Only a handful of family and friends knew that I was writing the book. So I thought of Laura, who I haven't been in touch with since 1996. I found her email link on the University of Michigan's faculty website where she now teaches. I told her what I had been up to and asked if she knew of any self-publishing sites that she would recommend. Laura got back to me a few days later and offered to give the book a read. With nineteen books in print, I was shocked that she remembered me after fifteen years and stunned that she would take the time to do this. So I sent the stories off to her and a very long month went by. Waiting for her reply: I was convinced that she either couldn’t understand them or hated them...or both. She shot an email back on December 21st with unexpected praise. Laura told me that she thought they were ready to publish. I was deeply relieved at her response, but terrified, knowing deep down that this would most likely be the only book I would ever write. I must have read them over fifteen times after Laura got back with me, grappling with the book until late March. I uploaded it to Lulu, Barnes and Noble, the I-Bookstore, and now Smashwords. Then ten or twelve revisions later—here they are: first person accounts of drilling for oil and gas in the Michigan basin—as journalists and geologists refer to it. Roughnecks just call it the patch.
Where to find Greig Grey online
This member has not published any books.