The airplane is a great place to pick up nuggets.
People converge, get stuck together for a few hours, and then go their separate ways. No commitment, no obligations, only curiosity.
The young man sitting next to me on the flight from New Orleans to Atlanta had light-brown hair and a slightly ruddy face, but did not have any farmboy vibe. He was wearing a short-sleeve polo shirt and khaki pants, lugging a duffle bag. Well built and strong, but no gym-honed muscles.
We started chatting when he made a comment about the book I was reading --- Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods." He noted that I was shaking with laughter from time to time. I admitted that it was the book's fault.
Have you walked the Appalachian Trail? I asked.
Not the whole thing, if that's what you're asking. He replied, but we, my girlfriend and I, hiked the part near where we lived in North Carolina on the weekends.
Do you live in NC then? I asked. Are you flying there now?
No, we moved back to Harrisburg, PA a couple of months ago, he said. We were both from PA.
I was curious. They moved from PA to NC, then from NC back to PA. Interesting.
What line of work are you in? I asked. I always pose this question on first meeting. Despite all the protests and disclaimers, what a person does for a living IS an indication of who he is, albeit not all of who he is. Besides, I have a fascination for different jobs.
I work for an oil company, he said. His eyes twinkled, perhaps because he anticipated my next question.
Really? I said. What do you think about the BP oil spill in the Gulf?
I work for them --- well, actually, I work for the company who was contracted by BP to run the oil rig that exploded.
The recent spill disaster is the fault of government policy, he said. Because US policy did not permit shallow-water drilling closer to the shore, companies have to drill in deep water, thus making it impossible to plug when this happens.
BP has no clue to plug it, does it? I asked. Nobody knows how, as far as I can tell?
He shrugged. Not that I know of, he said.
Well, the policy is merely a reflection of the people's will, I commented. Nobody wants oil rigs near their beach-front properties to spoil the view or, worse, threaten a spill. No in their backyard, I said. Just like building prisons. They all want more and more criminals be put out of their sight and their neighborhood, preferably on another continent.
Well, then you get deep-sea spills that you cannot plug, he pointed out. Now all the rigs are being pulled as we speak, he said. We are all going overseas. I'm going to Egypt next month to work on a ship in that area. All the oil drilling will leave US and go elsewhere.
He told me his employer is a Norwegian oil company with rigs all over the world. But he does not work on oil rigs, but rather on gigantic oil ships that carry oil produced from rigs to shore. He goes out to sea for 3 weeks at a time, then gets one full week off. The company flies him to a port, then gets him on the assigned ship every month. Therefore it matters not where he lives. He can live anywhere he wants. While on the ship, he works for 10-12 hours a day. There is not much to do on the oil ship but work and sleep.
I asked him whether it is hard to live this life, sequestered alone for 3 weeks, then come home for a week and rest. Over and over. He said no. He is used to it. He has been working this job for 4 years. It can get lonely on the ships sometimes, but he enjoys having a whole week off, to be with his girlfriend. Plus the money is good. Very good. (I did not ask exactly how good.)
He said he is a mechanical engineer. He fixes mechanical problems on oil ships and sometimes on oil rigs.
How did you get into this work? I asked. He said it was by accident. I grew up in rural PA, he said. I had never seen the sea growing up. My grandfather was a pilot in the airforce and flew in WW2, he said dreamily. I had always wanted to fly. I never wanted to do anything else since childhood. After high school, I joined the school for merchant marine, with the plan to fly commercial planes. However, the school required a year of training at sea. I immediately fell in love with it. I went all over the world --- Korea, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Brazil, various ports of Europe. I loved the work and the life. I felt it was my calling.
What if you encounter problems at sea that you cannot fix? I asked. Wouldn't you panic?
He chuckled. Yes, that happens sometimes. You have probably never seen those massive machines on oil rigs and ships. I did panic when I first started and had little experience. But then I learned to slow down and take my time. It always work out in the end. (Just as I am writing this, it occurred to me that he would not be totally alone. Each ship has satellite telephone connection. He can get remote help if he runs into a rut with machinery.)
Do you feel your life has forked apart from your peers? I asked. He seemed mature, collected, articulate, and confident.
Definitely, he nodded. All the kids I grew up and went to school with are living a totally different life. A lot of them are still living with their parents, and some have been unemployed for a long time. All my current friends are in their 30s, and I'm only 26. (He looked 26.) I have been around the world.
What about your girlfriend? I asked. She must be lonely when you were away on the sea for 3 weeks at a time.
Yes, she has complaints about that. He sighed. She has been unemployed for a few months now. We are practically married. She grumbles about my absence but does not mind spending my money, he said. Then he seemed to feel bad about saying that and explained that his girlfriend is very smart. Her line of work, as I prodded him to find out, is a specialized niche. She majored in psychology and works with juvenile offenders, troubled children in various institutions and the criminal justice system.
That's a hard job, I said, perhaps no less difficult than your job. He said she could not find a job in NC after they moved there, so they moved back to PA. She is currently training for a marathon. They hope to buy a piece of land and build a house.
Before we landed in Atlanta, he told me his name was Dustin. Did your parents name you after Dustin Hoffman? He smiled and replied, probably not.
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