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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published August 19 2012

Faces of the Boom: North Dakota drilling crew forms tight bonds

WILLISTON, N.D. – Oilfield roughnecks are more like brothers than co-workers.

For one drilling crew working near Williston, they hardly see anyone but each other for half the year.

They work together for 12 hours a day, rotating between day and night shifts.

The five guys live together on location, sleeping on bunk beds inches from each other in a trailer they share with the crew working the opposite shift.

At the end of their two-week “hitch,” some of them carpool to the states they call home for their two weeks off.

They develop close bonds, not just so they can tolerate each other, but so they keep each other safe on the drilling rig.

“When you’re out here, you are your brother’s keeper,” said Mark Harris, 24, of Oklahoma. “Every single person looks out for each other.”

This particular crew ranges in age and experience from Robert Berryman, 43, of Louisiana, who has worked in oil fields for 23 years, to Steven Mason, 20, of Oklahoma, who joined the crew in February.

They do the physically demanding work for the money, and many requested to be in North Dakota because the pay is greater. Mason, who said his salary started at $86,000, said they spend their money on “bills and big trucks.”

The crew goes out to eat together about three times during their hitch, but otherwise they primarily stay on site.

“Once you get off work, you pretty much shower, eat and go to bed,” Mason said. “Wake up and do it again.”

Berryman, who leads the crew, tries to make sure everyone gets quick breaks to grab water or food. On hectic days, Harris might even hand-feed Berryman so he doesn’t go his entire shift without eating.

The attitude of helping each other out extends during the off hours, said Mark Christensen, 32, of Colorado, who checks to see if his roommates need anything before he makes a trip into Williston.

While the close-quarters relationships create challenges, so does managing long-distance relationships. Working in the oil fields means being away from children for three members of the crew.

Chris Green, who is married with a 6-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter at home in Arkansas, said his son gets emotional if he talks to him on the phone while away at work.

“My wife said he’ll just get in her lap and cry every day he does talk to me,” said Green, 30. “It is difficult.”

During one two-week hitch, Green missed his son’s kindergarten graduation, Mother’s Day and his wife’s birthday. This crew also works Christmas every year, Green said.

When they’re missing home and not focusing on work, that’s when the guys are in greatest danger of getting hurt, Green said. That’s when it’s most important to look out for each other.

“You’ve got to see when a man’s mentally having a bad day and you’ve got to pick him up, cheer him up, be his brother,” Green said.

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Dalrymple is a Forum Communications Co. reporter stationed in the Oil Patch. She can be reached at adalrymple@forumcomm.com or (701) 580-6890.