The Coldest I’ve Ever Been

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It was Damn Cold

I can’t say what the temperature was the coldest I’ve ever been. I don’t remember which night it was, but it was damn cold and I was bundled up — and it was here on the Mississippi gulf coast. Working nights in the refinery, doing shit jobs for a sub-contractor on a team of people doing any job they could. Interestingly enough it followed close on the hottest I’ve ever been on a January night — in the days before we’d moved sand bags around in the coker. At two in the morning with wind coming off a cold lake in January it was still hot. Imagine my surprise nearly freezing to death the same week.

My jobs were pretty much those of a gofer — I was twenty or twenty-one, with no skill other than writing which amounts to bupkis in an oil refinery. Bitter as hell about life and I didn’t know why, just stupid young me that needed present me to set him straight. Two of my most common jobs were Hole Watch and Fire Watch. Now, if you’ve never worked in a place like a refinery the first one might sound like a crude way of referring to a gynecologist but it’s actually an important job for safety reasons. I got to sit out in the mind-numbing cold with an air horn while men worked inside of any sort of “room”. I watched the hole — the door. If something bad went down I sounded that horn to get them the hell out. If they got hurt, I got help. It was my job to keep track of how many of them were in the hole, when they left, all of that. Our equipment was a special reflective vest, the standard safety equipment (coveralls, eye protection, gloves, earplugs, hard hat), an air horn, and a pad of paper to keep track of who I was responsible for. I think we had a walky-talky, too, but that was just so our asshole boss could make sure we were doing what we were supposed to be. My boss, I forgot his name but I think it was Greg something, was such a prick he gave himself two heart-attacks being a prick at work.

Basically men’s lives were in my hands. Fortunately nothing ever came of it but I still took it seriously even as a young, punk kid. Those guys were cut off inside there. They often couldn’t take the radios in for a variety of reasons. An oil refinery has a lot of fumes and gases all around it. One of the ones we were told about, even if it didn’t make a difference, was a sulfur gas that smelled like rotten eggs. The problem with that is by the time you inhaled enough to smell it you were a dead man walking. That stuff leaking is one reason we had hole watch — a leak meant shutting the place down.

A few years ago one of the tanks in this refinery popped. Just blew up. Destroyed windows for miles. I can’t remember if anyone was hurt or even if human error played a role. But that’s the sort of danger you’re dealing with.

Sitting outside this one tank, I forget what it was for, was probably the second coldest I’ve ever been. We were right off a lake, it was below freezing to start with, and the wind off the lake was in the teens. It was wet, too, so the cold went right through us to our bones. I was wearing jeans, a shirt, coveralls, and a jacket. Still shivering cold.

But the coldest was definitely one night on Fire Watch. Fire Watch is a bit different from Hole Watch in that while men are welding the Fire Watch has to make sure those sparks don’t catch. Basically I got paid to hold a leaky water hose and spray sparks all night. This night they were working on an installation that actually had the sulfur gas in it and that kept me on my toes. So did the leaky water hose soaking my fingers to the bone. Cold wind off the lake, too. Same story as Hole Watch but now I’m sitting here with wet hands and water that’s just above freezing coming out all over me. That’s probably a safety hazard in and of itself but still. I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold before or since in my entire life.

Probably lost five pounds just with my body trying to stay warm.

I don’t still do that work, but people across the country do. They’re busting their asses to make sure the place keeps running, whether they be working in a refinery or one of our few remaining factories. They’ll never be millionaires or on television but they’re the backbone of who we are. Men that just want to earn their keep and have their families, and enjoy their weekend. These folk vote or don’t, but all of them want to be let be and keep their heads down.

Oh, and the coker I mentioned above: That was the smelliest shit-house on the planet. It’s some of the awful leavings from oil processing, a near-solid waste product that smells worse than any oil I’ve ever come across (and oil smells awful in most forms). Worse than an open or overflowing sewer, worse than a septic tank, worse than rancid dead earthworms (long story). It gets in your nose and it won’t go away — you’ll have black snot if you spend too much time in the coker. I can’t imagine what being a coal miner is like but I bet those poor guys working down in the pit at the coker would be right at home in a mine shaft. It can’t smell any worse.

Of course, like coal mining, oil refineries are looked down on as polluting industries in a way that ignores that the pollution of those industries powers a damn nation. Maybe one day we’ll have some green power to replace both but until then if you shut down those two industries our economy will grind to a halt. People will starve to death in droves — in the United States. Without oil, trucks won’t run, some trains won’t run. Supplies don’t get to the stores. Without coal, most power plants won’t run and we’ll all be in the dark.

But what do I know? I’m just a cracker with too much education that once froze to death on the gulf coast with a jacket on.