Saturday Night in Greeley, CO

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My wife and I went out for dinner a few nights ago. Dinner out, a familiar ritual transformed. One might imagine sitting down to burgers and beer in the ICU of a mediocre hospital. In earlier times I might have quoted Samuel Morse, his words in the first telegram, but recognizing God’s reduced visibility in modern America I am paraphrasing instead, “What hath the experts wrought?”

However even among the eerie apparitions of once familiar décor, we still conversed as in times past. In our dinner conversation, the subject of people came up, an always entertaining topic though often fraught with hidden reefs. In particular, we shared our thoughts on the attitudes and actions of friends and family regarding the emerging and increasingly complex rituals of manners in the Land of the Coronavirus.

As with much else in 21st Century America, there is very little middle ground. On the one side are those who are more or less respectful in public places of the virus as well as the protocols and customs arising from its existence, but giving lip service only. The other pole of behavior is visibly nervous at proximity, fretful of the dangers posed by other human beings, willing to go to great lengths to avoid any and all possible contamination while slowly becoming catatonic in their self-imposed exile.

My wife wondered, “What makes the difference?” Of course when the subject is stereotyping people, making generalizations about them, I can be a regular Chatty Cathy. But such an unedited response while partaking of adult beverages is to sail with topgallants unfurled into a stormy bay well salted with jagged reefs. While Ethan Hawke won great honor doing just that at Quiberon Bay, changing the course of America’s future as he did, the mature husband prefers the steady winds and sunlit vistas of the open sea.

For background on Ethan Hawke & Quiberon Bay see “Speaking English in Colorado – http://www.absolombracer.com/?p=679

Which of course is why I write a blog, mercifully a blog seldom read by family. That evening I could have said my piece, but then to my dismay I must admit to the fact that I am not the man Ethan Hawke was.

Let it be said that there are many among us with medical conditions making the coronavirus a clear and present danger. But for those of us without obvious risk factors other than a lack of empathy, I suspect a Venn Diagram might offer insight. Taking the intersection of population sets such as urban residence, “quality” education, cloistered occupation such as knowledge worker, NPR/PBS “Life Partner”, etc. would provide a reliable predictor of those most fretful of personal contact.

I might have added gender and/or sex to the population sets included in the conversation inspired Venn Diagram, as well as in this blog, but I was seized by a sudden fit of caution. Let me not make things too easy for the Thought Police of the Hive Mind when they come for me, as they must, in some future day. As I said, I have come to terms with the understanding that I am not Ethan Hawke.

While the intersection of the population sets in my imaginary Venn Diagram was clear in the logic gates of my careening mind, the editing center putting words into my mouth said something else entirely. My wife actually heard me say, “I thought a person’s experience had a lot to do with their attitude toward Coronavirus.”

My wife considered my point but then rejected it as having little explanatory power. In her turn she suggested that the individual’s faith, or lack of same, might be the reason. There is powerful logic behind her thought. If this world is all there is, then one acts in the light of that belief. But I have found the promise of future rapture weighed against present pain an uncertain guide to behavior. There is a country & western song lyric that captures my own thoughts in this regard, “I want to go to heaven, but I’m scared a’ dyin’”.

Going back to the explanatory power of “experience”, I must fall back as I always do on my 40 years experience building things. Recognizing the obvious risk of being thought a journalist, I admit to reflexively dividing people into two groups. It has always worked for me and I cling stubbornly to those habits that do. In my working life’s experience, technical people tended to fall into two camps, those comfortable on the job site and those who avoided it – avoided it like the plague, or Coronavirus.

Both camps had equal measures of most attributes – brains and lack of same, honesty and chicanery, sophistication and naivety. That bane of the technical mind, political cunning – or its lack – seemed equally distributed as well, though its deficiency had much harsher consequences for those grazing in the office meadows. Cold realities teach that there is always a place for people who can actually make actual things work.

But over the years this career bifurcation had a clear effect on these builders, the technical population that I rubbed shoulders with over four decades. Those familiar with the job site through experience actually grew comfortable with Murphy’s Law and its various corollaries, while those remaining back in the cubicles were sure mankind’s inevitable collisions with reality were caused by poor planning, insufficient engineering and/or moral turpitude – i.e. contractor or vendor greed.

To be sure, both sides had ample reason to believe as they did. Poor planning, insufficient engineering, greed and moral turpitude are inherent to the human condition. Thus the office folks hit the nail on the head. They were always right!

But then perfection is a rare condition indeed on this side of the Pearly Gates, a fact of which folks in the field were well aware, repeatedly suffering its lack, exhibiting a fatalistic attitude in acceptance of the inevitable. On the other hand, the office folks had a certain brittleness in the face of the unexpected, manifesting itself in some combination of bluster, threat or panic

A case in point is a vignette from my own past. It was the fall of 1988, a time of stressful hard times in the oil patch of Denver. For the past four years my family had eked out a living by my working as a realtor while intermittently commuting to California as a contract engineer. My long suffering wife had long since learned to avoid embarrassment at the cashier by keeping a running cost total of her cart’s groceries.

But then something on the order of a miracle happened. One of the companies in Denver that I worked with from time to time began the engineering and design of a fractionation plant in Greeley, CO. They hired me to design the controls and electrical part of the plant. It was a meaty project that would offer several month’s employment – a Hail Mary pass, an inflection point changing the arc of my life.

A large part of the charm that I brought to the table in those days was the ability to do the design in the office, support construction and then make it work on the job site. This was a win-win situation, as my employer got a one-stop solution and I maximized my income, though my time in the embrace of my family suffered as a result. However my wife’s trips to the grocery store were considerably less tense.

And so after several months, it was Opening Night. The fractionation plant was ready to go into operation, to be a profit center rather than a money pit. Startup began Saturday morning with the following Monday – Drop Dead Day. Consequences, serious consequences, were on the table if the fractionator was not making product the following Monday.

To unpack the arcana for the uninitiated, natural gas wells produce “natural gas liquids” or NGL’s as well as methane, methane being the main component of what utilities provide as natural gas. These NGL’s are a highly volatile and difficult to handle product with reduced value until separated into saleable pure products.

A fractionation plant takes NGL’s and “fractionates” them in distillation towers, separating them into their saleable parts – ethane, propane, butane and condensate. Unlike methane or “utility grade natural gas”, these products are heavier than air making them much more dangerous to handle. Much more explosive than methane, if they leak into the atmosphere they will flow like invisible water along the ground, moving downhill and seeking a spark to flare into a detonating fire bomb.

And so that Saturday morning, we started to bring the fractionator online for the first time. My job was troubleshooting, wandering around the plant looking for potential problems and or fixing control systems that had teething problems. All plant operators take it as an article of faith that faulty instruments are the cause of all unexpected problems. Thus, I always found myself batting leadoff when a problem reared its head during startup.

As is his practice, the infamous Mr. Murphy was doing his thing and the sun was going down before we had the De-Ethanizer Tower on line. Then it was time to bring up the next tower, the De-Propanizer. Soon it was pitch dark with plant lighting outlining the stark utilitarian shapes of the plant in a harsh yellow glare. Then it happened.

The tower was coming up to equilibrium temperature when the propane reflux pump was started. A white mist plumed over the equipment and the operators. It quickly became clear that the seals on the pump were bad and 200 PSIG propane was blowing out into the atmosphere. The pump was quickly shutdown and isolated. The spare pump was turned on. An even larger spray of white mist appeared.

It is time to point out that I was not the only one experiencing hard times in the late 1980’s. The oil patch was a hard-scrabble place. Everything was done on a shoe-string – to be sure a Wal-Mart shoestring rather than one sold at REI. To make this plant feasible, it had been built out of used equipment, bird-dogged from all over the country. I had visited “junkyards” here, there and everywhere for valves, controls, motors, switchgear and transformers.

The propane reflux pumps were used equipment, salvaged from junkyards in Odessa, Tulsa, and places even more obscure, just like everything else in the plant. Someone had not checked out the pumps properly – broken them down to inspect the seals and hydrotested them. The plant couldn’t operate until those pump seals were replaced. Any sane sensible plan of action required shutdown, purging and inerting the plant, and then fixing the problem. Of course doing so meant Drop Dead Monday would be reality for many careers, perhaps even the executives of the company that owned the plant – along with the investors banking the project.

The eyes of my fellow worker bees and myself turned to the Project Manager that night. The Owner’s Project Manager was a hard man, sparing in praise but quick to curse those who failed him. It was said that someone had once seen him smile, but nobody actually believed it.

During the course of the project, I had grown to be friends with the process engineer who designed the plant, another contract hand like myself. Ten days earlier this Project Manager had motioned for my friend to join him, to cross the yard for an impromptu conversation. Ten minutes later, my friend walked back to me, shaken, almost in tears. He had just been fired, “Could I give him a ride back to Denver, as he had come in a company car no longer available to him.” He had been fired, no reason given and was now stranded without a ride home.

And now on Saturday night, I watched this hard man, waiting for the plant to shutdown, for the white mist highlighted in the pipe rack lights to go away. I was beginning to get antsy, edging away and moving uphill. As I said, I am no Ethan Hawke. Instead, I saw men begin to break open their tool boxes for tools, unbolting the pump bonnet, opening it up to replace the seals. The other pump continued to run, allowing the De-Propanizer Tower its continued ramp to operational equilibrium, spraying that eerily beautiful white mist into the air – that deadly white mist.

This hard man, the Owner’s Project Manager was not going to shut down. He was going to change out the seals now. The truck mounted crane moved in to pick up and lift the bonnet when it was unbolted.

The workmen were using brass wrenches so that there would be no sparking as they unbolted flanges and bonnets. The crane truck had a sealed ignition system, so it’s sparkplugs would not ignite the flammable propane laced atmosphere. Hopefully, I had adequately inspected all of the electrical connections for airtight seals so that there would be no stray sparks from the powered electrical equipment.

It should all be okay. Should all be okay if everybody had done their job, if there weren’t any “oops”. Of course there wouldn’t be all this propane spraying around just outside of Greeley on a dark Saturday night if everyone had done their job, if there were no “oops”.

I remember it all clearly. The stars shining in a black sky, the white fog of propane mist billowing around the yellow mercury lights in the alleyways of the pipe rack, the air cooled by the evaporating propane mist against my skin, the crane lifting the pump bonnet. I knew that any spark anywhere would be a fireball.

It worked out. The pump seals were replaced and plant startup continued. In due time the De-Propanizer came on line, and in its turn the De-Butanizer. I got home that night about 3 AM, but the plant was up and running – steady stream’s of saleable propane, butane and condensate going into tankage. Everybody made it home safe. Everybody could breathe easy on Monday. Their jobs, and their company, would continue.

In retrospect, even at the time, what we did was stupid and foolhardy. But when things are tight, when times are hard, you do stupid and foolhardy things. What I do remember very clearly was that hard man, the Owner’s Project Manager. He was not on the phone from the corporate offices, or even the relative safety of the control room.

The man who gave the orders was working a wrench on the pump, and then he stood over the pump directing the crane. I didn’t like him, even feared him, but he had, and still has, my respect. That man led from the front. He didn’t ask his people to do anything he wasn’t willing to do, or hadn’t done, himself. I wonder what he would think about the “safe spaces” and “zero tolerances” of the modern Adorable workspace.

If my blog has a theme, a conceit, it is the idea that I find myself a Deplorable in the Land of the Adorables. I rub shoulders with Adorables all the time and wonder – “Why aren’t I Adorable?” All kidding aside, there are so many reasons that I should be, but I’m not.

That conversation with my wife and the Venn Diagram. There is a reason for that editing function between mind and mouth that spoke“experience” rather than my raw thoughts. That unconscious editor often sees the truth of the forest as my conscious mind stumbles around in the trees.

Both inclination and circumstance conspire to keep the Adorable in the office, away from the rough education of Mr. Murphy. The well-ordered educations and careers of most Adorables does not allow for Saturday nights in fractionation plants, or anywhere else the raw hand of Reality might slap them around. In the professional prosperity and peaceful urban corridors of the past thirty years, there has been little need to learn how to keep a running total of the groceries in a cart or dirty their hands among the hoi polloi.

I am no different from the Adorables I live among, but perhaps I have lived a different life experience. I have often been out of work and faced with the need to not just get a job, but to make something happen if I am to meet my responsibilities. Such urgent necessity seems absent from the Adorable life.

Not to say that nerve wracking situations do not loom in the life of the Adorable. But eluding the informers and commissars of the Stasi in Corporate HR is a lifestyle that numbs even as it deadens the Adorable to their bizarre Reality. There is a difference in the chilling touch of propane vapor on the skin.

Perhaps one might revisit the life and times of Ethan Hawke, a man much like that hard Project Manager of the fractionation plant. Ethan Hawke won glory, changing history with a stupid and foolhardy action. He risked his fleet and the lives of 40,000 sailors in close pursuit of a French fleet running before a great storm into a dangerous harbor.

But Ethan Hawke, like that Project Manager, lived in hard times, times that demanded results, not best efforts within boundaries set by HR, Risk Mitigation, Public Relations and Twitter followings. It is worth remembering that two years before Ethan Hawke risked his fleet so outrageously at Quiberon Bay, a fellow admiral was executed by firing squad for failing to “do his utmost”.

Admiral John Byng led a fleet of hastily assembled and poorly maintained ships, the Royal Navy’s version of a used fractionation plant, to relieve the British garrison on the island of Minorca. Admiral Byng was given a difficult task and few resources. Unsurprisingly, it did not go well. Rather than acting in a stupid and foolhardy way, Admiral Byng acted cautiously, hesitating to throw away ships or men in stupid or foolhardy action.

The British position in Minorca fell with the French capturing the strategic port and island. Upon returning to Portsmouth Harbor, Admiral Byng was court martialed for his actions and found guilty of “failing to do his utmost”. The Royal Navy’s Articles of War required execution. His fellow officers pleaded for mercy to the Admiralty and King, noting the poor circumstances of his command and his restraint in not wasting ships or lives in hopeless bluster.

But on 14 March 1757, Admiral John Byng was marched onto the quarterdeck of HMS Monarch, a 74 gun ship of the line slated for scrap. There he was executed by a firing squad of Royal Marines in full view of the entire fleet, assembled to witness the sentence carried out – an obvious object lesson to flag officers of future expectations.

Ethan Hawke’s actions at Quiberon Bay make perfect sense in light of John Byng’s fate. Circumstances and experience guide our actions, and our ideas of right and wrong. In the days and years before 14 March 1757, perhaps even Ethan Hawke was no Ethan Hawke.

Perhaps the reason I am not an Adorable is that I don’t believe they have ever spent Saturday night in Greeley, with stomach clenched and sweaty hands quietly edging their way uphill. Rather than appreciating hard men who do what the situation requires, Adorables prefer the therapeutic lotus fields of an unreal echo chamber. Nobody wants to spend Saturday night on the edge of Greelye, CO in a propane fog, but we do what we have to do. And it changes us.

 

2 Responses to “Saturday Night in Greeley, CO”

  1. Rex Rinne says:

    A great reminder about all the incongruous realities of life, and its complex application in our present pandemic situation. In a parallel comparison with my own calling in life…..there are some who live in the ivory towers of study and theory and thought, and on the flip side, there are those who are in the dirty trenches facing day to day decisions that have eternal and lasting consequences for the individuals they meet. The only redeeming difference is that the Eternal and Triune God watches over the frailty of His fallen, yet fortunately redeemable through His Son, creation. We need only, by the Spirit’s power and prompting, open our eyes to the truth and receive and embrace this hope and peace.

  2. Jim Claunch says:

    Wow, Boss!

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