Horrors! Had No Sleep, But Several Visitors
June 1, 2006
My “job from hell” was a week long - or, more precisely, exactly 120 hours long. Anyone who has started a business knows that in the early days, you have a lot of long hours and sleepless nights. This particular job was during my first winter in business for myself. Back then, I had a lot of trouble finding jobs, and when one came up, I couldn't afford to turn it down.
One Monday, I started a job at 9 a.m. A few hours into it, I got a call from a guy I knew at an engineering firm, who knew I was hard-up for work. He told me they were doing a dewatering project at a gas station. They needed someone to work the night shift. If I was interested, all I would need to do was take water-level readings every 45 minutes or so and keep an eye on the pumps to make sure they didn't freeze. My shift would be from 6 p.m. until 8 a.m., plus travel time an hour each way, every night for “a few nights.” So, even though I had drilling jobs lined up every day that week, at 6 o'clock each evening, there I was, alone at a long-abandoned gas station in Lynn, Mass. I figured I could catch up on sleep in between the water-level readings.
There was a convenience store right next to the site with one of those big temperature displays. At 6 p.m., it read 25 degrees; by 8 p.m., it said 15 degrees; and by 10 p.m., it was at zero degrees, where it stuck, as the temperature continued to drop. There was a little heated kiosk in the middle of the gas station, the only building, with one 3-foot-by-5-foot “room” for the cashier, and one 3-foot-by-3-foot bathroom. I'm 6 feet, 4 inches tall, so to stretch out and lie down for some shut-eye, I had to sleep half in the bathroom. The bathroom was slightly warmer than the other room, so that's where my head lay. This was not a nice bathroom - if you want to know what it was like, go rent the movie “Trainspotting,” and pay attention to the part featuring “the worst toilet in Scotland.” Then, make it 10 times smaller and 100 times more disgusting. There were only a couple of feet of room between the toilet and the wall, so if I ever dozed off, I might wake up kissing the porcelain. After a while, I was so tired that this didn't bother me at all.
They had a very strange setup for the dewatering. They were pumping out of a hole into a frac tank, and, from the frac tank, there was another pump going to discharge down a sewer. The problem was that the pump inside the tank pumped much faster than the one in the hole, so that if you left it on too long, it would pump out the tank and burn itself up. Of course, if you left it off for too long, the contaminated water would spill out of the tank, go all over the street and freeze. I was supposed to take water-level readings of the frac tank every 45 minutes, and turn the discharge pump off and on as needed - which turned out to be about every time I took a reading. I also had to make sure the discharge line didn't freeze, and, since this was a pretty tough neighborhood, I had to march around the site periodically with a mag light and scare away any evil-doers intent on vandalizing the pumps or the generator. I was 24 years old and very nervous about ruining the client's pumps.
I ended up staying there for 14 hours a night for 14 days, including my birthday and Thanksgiving, while drilling all over the place every day for the first week. Of course, I had to speed like crazy every afternoon to get back to the site by 6 p.m. A few funny things happened at that site.
The first night I was there, I got up at about 3:30 a.m. and found the whole frac tank and surrounding area encased in ice. In the last 45 minutes, the discharge line had frozen and split, and the pump seemed to have burned itself out. Cursing, I climbed up onto the tank and began to disconnect the discharge lines. All of a sudden, the pump miraculously turned itself back on and soaked me with a high-pressure blast of oily, half-frozen water. I was wet-T-shirt-contest wet, soaked right to the underwear, in the time it took me to get to safety. The hose was flailing around like an angry earthworm. I don't even remember how I fixed the problem, but I do remember being scared of hypothermia. I went back into my filthy kiosk and changed into my rainsuit, which was the only dry thing I had.
The second night, I decided I was already sick of sleeping in the bathroom and figured I'd sleep in my truck instead. It was an old rustbucket, and I was a little worried that if I idled it all night, I would either suffocate or run out of gas by midnight. I figured it was worth the risk. At about 7 o'clock in the evening, though, a distraught woman came out of the housing projects next to the site and tapped on my window. She claimed that the fumes from the diesel generator that was running the pumps had given her asthma and that she was going to sue me. She also warned me that she would come back down and find me later that night, when I was asleep, and that I wouldn't see her coming. I decided to turn off the truck and sleep in the bathroom again, since the kiosk had a good strong lock and bulletproof glass. Apparently, the next week, during the day shift when I wasn't there, the woman threatened to kill some of the construction workers, and eventually was taken away by the guys in white suits.
One night at about 2 a.m., I was up on top of the frac tank and almost got arrested. The police shone lights on me and made me come down off the tank with my hands up. They checked my ID, frisked me and tried to scare me a little, but I was much too tired to be scared. Finally, satisfied at having bullied somebody, they drove off. The next night, when I got to the site, I thought that I would call the police dispatcher, to let them know I was there, so I called up. I told the woman where I was, and that I'd be working there all night. She told me that she had a good mind to send a cruiser down there and arrest me right now. How was she to know I wasn't trying to commit some kind of crime? She wouldn't let me explain and hung up on me. Nobody ended up coming down, and I didn't get arrested.
I was getting between 10 minutes and 20 minutes of sleep at a time, which isn't real sleep. I began to be unable to tell when I was awake and when I was dreaming. Everything started to feel like a dream. I would drill holes all day in a dream; when the client wanted to take lunch, I would sleep in my truck. Then I would speed to the site at night, take my first reading, and, by 6:25 p.m., I would be trying to sleep. Then at 6:45 p.m., the alarm would go off. I'd get up, take a reading, fool with the pumps and by 7 p.m. or so I'd be trying to fall asleep again. This would go on all night long. Usually, I would just be falling asleep when the alarm went off to take a reading. When I was asleep, I dreamed about taking readings.
One evening, at about 7 o'clock, a nice old guy came up to me and started talking to me as I was trying to fix one of the discharge lines. He was normal-looking, clean-cut, friendly and a Marine Corps veteran. He asked about what I was doing and he told me about how he and his brothers used to fish in the stream nearby when they were kids. But I felt like I was in a dream, and just like in a dream, things happened quickly and strangely. All of a sudden, his arm was around me, and he was hissing in my ear about the tiny computers the government implants in all the fruit you buy at the supermarket, that stay in your body after you eat them, and transmit where you are and broadcast your conversations to a darkened room deep under the Pentagon. He warned me of the millions of satellites up in the sky, spaced so close together that they were only a few hundred feet apart, equipped with cameras so powerful they can distinguish every hair on your head, monitoring every single American, even babies, capable of seeing through rooftops, and even monitoring when and where you went to the bathroom! Not sure if I was awake or asleep, I kept nodding my head until he went away, promising to come back tomorrow to “check on me.” I went back into the bathroom and went to sleep.
They had a big diesel generator there running the pumps, a rental. It used to turn itself off periodically and you had to open it up to get it going again, and you'd just about freeze your hands off doing it. I found that if I was asleep and the generator turned off, I'd wake up just as quickly as if someone had fired a gun next to my ear. The generator was right next to the kiosk and I could hear it and smell it all night long. During the day, wherever I was, even if I was driving, I would occasionally notice that I couldn't hear or smell the generator, and a flash of paranoia would run through me. “Gotta fix the generator! Gotta fix the generator!”
By Friday afternoon, on my way to the site at 5 o'clock, I had been working without any real sleep for 104 hours (if you don't count my travel time Monday morning, which I wasn't paid for). By that time, I had pretty much gotten used to not sleeping and I felt good. I felt like I didn't need to sleep ever again. I felt strange, but not tired at all, and my mind felt clear and sharp. “I must be some kind of superman,” I thought. “I feel better than I ever have in my life. Clear-headed, focused and on-the-ball.” Right then, the song “Turn the Page,” by Bob Seeger, came on the radio. The song is all about life on the road, how lonely it is and how noble it is. “This is so true,” I thought. “So true. This song is about me.” I turned it up and started singing along loudly. Pretty soon, I was crying my eyes out, tears rolling down my cheeks until I could barely see the road. I cried and cried. Suddenly, I realized what I was doing and turned the radio off. “I gotta get some sleep.”
Saturday morning, I left the site at 8 o'clock, drove home and was finally off the clock at 9 o'clock - after 120 hours straight. I rolled right into the first bed I had seen in a week, and almost cried again, it felt so good. Eight hours later, of course, I had to get up and go back to the site. After that, though, at least I had the days off.