Home, home on the rig

"I see more of my children now than I did working nine to five." Blond, smiling Guy Kyles talks across his plastic coffee cup as a light windblown rain flattens against the window behind his counter. Outside is the helicopter pad he oversees, lying as though trapped under the thick rope net covering it. Beyond, the swells of the North Sea stretch 110 miles to Aberdeen, family, and home.

A former air traffic controller in the Royal Air Force, Guy is midway through his two-week stint on the support ship "Tharos," anchored beside the Piper oil field platform. His office, in a small deck-top cabin that still feels the slow rolling sway of a storm the night before, schedules crew changes and receives newcomers. In six days, the job rotation will set him free, his "opposite number" will arrive, and a Sikorsky S-61 chopper will take him home for two weeks.

All in all, he says, the fortnight on-fortnight off schedule suits him better than the family business -- selling shoes and saying "Yes, ma'm, no ma'm" all day. His wife stays at home with his 4 1/2- and 6-year-olds. Now, he admits, he appreciates her more and is less apt to take home for granted. Besides, the salary is good enough, he hopes, that he can finish payments soon on the house they own in a community of similar executives brought to Scotland's northeast coast by the oil industry.

Like hundreds of others, Guy is part of an occupation that hardly existed 15 years ago. As offshore oil-drilling platforms have sprouted up off Texas, Scotland, Norway, Nigeria and elsewhere around the oil-thirsty globe, so has a new life style.

Or, perhaps, so has an old one revived: the life of the frontier. The litany of names has changed. Silver City, Telluride, Minersville, Fairplay -- the El Dorados of the American West -- have given way to a catalogue that a Homer of the North Sea might sing: Piper, Claymore, Ekofisk, Thistle, Cormorant, and a dozen more. They are towering man-made communities, perching on pylons well above the reach of the 100-foot storm waves that can roll down from the norwegian Sea. Night and day they shine in the eerie orange light of their trailing gas flares -- and in the more blazing illumination of exaggerated press reports.

Is this the new frontier? The Monday morning visitor to the British Airways helicopter terminal at Aberdeen Airport may be forgiven for thinking so. Except for the large windows fronting the tarmac, the gray block building might be a bunker. Inside, below blond-varnished beams, the canteen in the corner simmers lazily. Flanking the counter are the telltales of a rough-and-tumble society: two 10p-a-whack video screen games called, significantly, "breakout," and a wire rack featuring horrifying pulp friction with cover-pictures of sultry women or cigar-chewing, grenade-handed jungle mercenaries. Across the thin, scarred carpet are five check-in counters, bearing the names that make the whole thing tick: Shell, Phillips, Total, Oxy, Sun -- the giants of the oil industry.

There is little talk; the few engineers and managers in ties, and the few more bearded and booted construction workers, read their Aberdeen press and journals or sit in soldierly silent camaraderie. It is mostly a sweater-and-jeans group, hallmarked by the ubiquitous navy blue parkas lined inside with that distinctive save-me-I'm-lost-at-sea orange. the fur trim around the park hood has given these men their familiar title: everyone calls them "the bears."

"That is no country for old men," said the poet William Butler Yeats in another context -- nor for women. Once aboard the 20-seat helicopter, the baggage-man who explains the life jacket packs we strap around ouur belts addresses us as "gentlemen." HE doesn't say "ladies and": there are no women, I am told, on offshore rigs in the British sectors.

The packs around our waists speak mutely of yet another frontier characteristic; the sense of danger from a still- untamed nature. Oil spills, blowouts, men overboard -- they are taken seriously here and guarded against with more than routine care. Last winter a trawler lost power in a storm and drifted for three days -- helplessly on target for a collision with the Claymore platform. It was only a few miles away when the wind changed and took it safely by. Nor can the lesser annoyances always be forestalled. Even wired into millions of dollars' worth of computer circuitry, crews due for home leave can be stranded in a fog for three days while no flights come and go.

Like the frontier of the forty-niners, however, it also has its rewards: $: 600 to $:800 ($1350 to $1800) a month for the bears, $:10,00 to $:20,000 ($22, 500 to $45,000) a year for managers. And bed and board and it becomes substantial. Add travel to and from home each month -- one helicopter pilot lives in Exeter in southern England -- and it becomes quite a life.

Some come for the money, short and simple: three months of work, a car bought or a debt cleared, and goodbye. Some come for the challenge. Some come for lack of other jobs in a nation where nearly 1.5 million are jobless. Some come and stay -- because they like it, because it is secure, because they are pursuing professions like deep-sea diving that can't be practiced inland. More than one is worried about his suddenly-comfortable life style, so much above what he previously had. Can I, he asks, unhook myself from a job whose income I have come to depend on?

Many do: the turnover rate is high. Those who stay on need a strange combination of good qualities: independence coupled with obedience, courage with care, self-sufficiency with a flexible willingness to get on with one's fellow man.

Yet in some ways it is no frontier at all.Not, at least, for cost engineer Ray Currie. As we batter along 2,000 feet above sea level, he talks about his life offshore. "I never actually found it quite as severe as I imagined," he says. "i sort of imagined icicles hanging from the steelworks. I've never seen that yet." He blames the media and press for hyping the frontier image. "A lot of it is in the mind," he says as we fly through the dull light disco-flickered through the window by the rotor above us. Once you accept the conditions, he says, "it's the same as any office or workshop on the beach."

Those conditions, after all, are far from Spartan. Though the men work 12 -hour days, the food is free, plentiful, and sumptuous; our midday meal, in a clean bright cafeteria below-decks, features various hot dishes and a table of salads, cheeses, and shellfish that would make Julia Child nod with approval. It's not Claridge's; but it's certainly not Ma and Pa Kettle's either. A peek around reveals bunks made up army-tight and a shower room (and sauna) with a young man hard at work polishing the mirrors. There are gymnasia, recreation rooms, and film lounges where large-screen televisions rerun video tapes of shows from the mainland. Tomorrow, I am told, they're coming out to see about hooking into the regular television transmissions.

Nor are the men here mentally packing six-guns and spurring on into lawlessness. One fist fight and you're back to the beach for good. The local Marshall Dillon is Occidental Oil's manager Jack Skinner, A stocky, bluff, and friendly man in tan overalls unzipped to the waist and no tee-shirt beneath. We wind through mazes of passageways that would astound Daedalus. Jack not only knows the way unthinkingly but also has a good word and a first name for nearly everyone we stumble upon.

What about these bears? I ask him. He smiles. "They take some mothering," he replies. He has tales of being awakened at one in the morning by a man complaining of a runny nose and by another who wanted -- at 3:30 a.m. -- to weigh himself. "It's best to console them rather than disrupt them," he laughs.

He carries his shoes in hand, always changing into them and leaving his boots at the door when we go back inside. He expects the men to do the same.Signs tell them not to wear dirty coveralls into the mess hall, where everyone from captain to custodian eats together. As we stroll through the movie room during lunch break, some 20 men scattered among the many empty seats eye him observantly. The slouchers surreptitiously remove their feet from nearby chairs.

There are only two of us on the return flight. "Sit towards the back," we're told on entering, "it helps the balance." The two pilots have a foil-wrapped lunch tray on the floor between them. Above our seat, with the air vents and reading lights, is a bright green button marked "attendant call." I don't bother to try it; the Airline Pilots's Association has already criticized the North Sea chopper trade for flying without any other crew aboard.

The flight, I'm told, costs some $:1000 ($2250) round trip for the Piper-to-Aberdeen run. That makes the 70 minutes in my seat worth $:500 ($1125 ). I don't bother to figure the cost per minute. Nor, probably, do the oil companies, who ferry an estimated 2 million passengers a year back and forth to North Sea rigs. It's worth it; Piper, says my seatmate, produces 300,000 barrels of oil per day, leading the North Sea league.

We're in mist most of the way back. The metaphors break down. It's not a frontier -- not isolated, lawless, greedy. Yet it is very much on the edge of something -- as though you could ride into the Last Chance Cafe on a horse filled with printed circuits. But even that doesn't say it: for it is not technology, so overwhelmingly present, that defines the place.

Finally it is an intensely human life, a life so dependent on mutual restraint, forbearance, and companionship that it focuses common experience into crisp brightness.It will produce something like the American West, novels telling us a bit more about who we all are.

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