Oilpatch Mosquitoes with Backbones and Ribs

The following is part of a collection of oilfield "yarns" assembled by the late Darnell Peacock of Conroe, TX, a long-time petroleum industry writer/editor who chronicled the industry's modern history as a daily newspaper oil editor and publisher of industry newsletters. He died in 1998. A major publisher is reviewing Peacock's collection, assembled into manuscript form.

Drag up a chair. Douse yourself with insect repellent, and work off that holiday feasting by digging into an account of an event that took place more than 40 years ago, when y'r obn't s'vnt and others fought a losing battle with the scourge of the Gulf Coast oilpatch--the salt marsh mosquito. Remember, summer's only a few months off.

The oilpatch is unforgiving: Intense heat, bone-numbing cold, rain, drought. Weather extremes are a given.

But an ever-present, unwavering annoyance at oilfield locations around the world--from Venezuela to Indonesia, from Siberia to Nigeria and everywhere between--is insects. Particularly mosquitoes.

This past summer, an oil company friend returned from a short trip to Alaska's North Slope, where huge clouds of "skeeters" are said to darken the sky during the short warm period. Apparently they go into a kind of suspended animation during the winter months, and wake up hungry.

In any case, the friend allowed as how Alaskan mosquitoes are overrated. They seem to lack a certain...well, gusto, he said.

"Sure. There's scads of 'em, and they bite with the best," said the friend, who'd been raised around the rice fields of Matagorda County, TX. "But you know, they're really kinda poor. They're soft. One slap with your hand'll kill a whole mess of 'em. You can practically blow on 'em and they turn belly up."

For sheer determination, he said, Alaskan mosquitoes can't hold a candle to what he called "them salt marsh Draculas."

Ah, yes. The "salt water" mosquito. Of the anopheles type. Black, about 3/4-inch long, with lengthy, arched legs and a longer beak lined with what look like teeth. The books say only the female sucks blood. But don't believe it. On the Gulf Coast, they all have to eat… or drink, as it were. Elsewise, they'd probably die of thirst.

And they're hard to kill. Swat one with an open palm. Chances are it'll shake its head and quiver some (I think they have ribs), give you a scornful look, and go right back to "drilling." If you do manage to squash one, your palm comes away with a sizable smear of your own blood.

One summer during college, I hired on as a rig hand on a perforating truck for Welex out of Beaumont, TX. On an August morning our crew, with Les Pavelka as shooter and Bob O'Bannion and myself as "riggers," was called out on a job for, I think, Shell.

We headed for the well, located on the McFaddin Ranch field west of Sabine Pass in Jefferson County. In the back, as extra cargo, we had 20-odd boxes of medium-size marbles and a wireline-conveyed dump bailer. The marbles were for bringing bottom up about 10 feet from a bridge plug just below the producing zone. The dump bailer was for depositing quick-drying cement onto the marbles to form a plug. We would then re-perforate through the tubing up-hole.

We got to the location about 2 p.m. The field was linked to the raised coastal highway by an oyster shell road jutting inland into the salt marsh, each finger leading to a well pad.

A vacuum truck was just leaving, having "killed" our well, located about a half-mile from the highway, far into the marsh. Once there, we unlimbered equipment, unbolted the Christmas tree's top valve, and got to work.

Normally, we'd have finished the job in three or four hours, Bob and I perched atop the tree, pouring marbles, Les handing up the boxes. For a "funnel," we used a metal shop light shade turned upside-down. Problem was, the marbles tended to bridge up in it, and one of us would have to un-jam the spout with a gloved finger or two, delaying things a few seconds. This helped make the job take longer than we'd planned. All the while, the well's downhole pressure kept rising.

By 4 p.m., the pressure had built to the point that marbles were spitting back up the tubing at us. The company man, interrupted from a nap in his car, radioed for another vacuum truck.

Meanwhile, the afternoon got more brutal. No clouds, and what Gulf wind there was didn't reach us behind the raised highway berm. We waited in the breathless, high-90s heat and thick humidity, hunkered down in the truck's shadow.

Two hours later, the vacuum truck having come and gone and the well re-soothed, we got back to pouring marbles.

But by then, the mosquitoes had come.

At first, we didn't notice… just a few black spots buzzing around our sweating faces. But by 7 p.m., with the sun low on the horizon, the bugs'd fetched friends and family. The word--in mosquito-ese, presumably--was out: "All you can drink! It's 'happy hour' at McFaddin Ranch!"

By 7:30, Bob and I were swatting mosquitoes more than pouring marbles. Les, a shop rag in each hand, was flailing away at our backs and bare arms to keep the quivering black masses at least partially distracted from their feeding frenzy. All of us inhaled mosquitoes… through our noses and, when we gulped for air, down our throats. Mosquito juice tastes awful.

By sundown hundreds, maybe thousands of bites had swelled our lips, noses, eyelids and ears. Our backs, where the shirts stretched to contact flesh, were gnarled, looking like we'd contracted some kind of horrible skin disorder. Even with the thrashing shop rags, the backs of our shoulders itched ceaselessly, and we couldn't reach to scratch. Our fingers, too, even inside Black Dot gloves, had swelled like sausages. Bending them was difficult and made the itching worse.

By dark the company man, still comfortable inside his car, with the engine running and air-conditioning turned wide open, stirred from his nap long enough to notice our St. Vitus dance up on the tree.

He rolled down the window. "Hey!" he squawked, "What's taking so long?"

"Goddamn bugs!" Les yelled back, flailing himself and us like some kind of crazed penitent. We backed him up with curses of our own. The marble pouring was pretty much history.

"Geezus," the company man yelped, the open car window allowing the insects to attack him. "This is awful! Close that well up and let's get the hell outa here. I'll carry you back to Beaumont. We'll finish this tomorrow."

Relieved, we whipped into action, replacing the top valve and heaving our tools and the remaining marble boxes into the truck. We hopped into the car and the company man floor-boarded it. Once on the highway, we opened all the windows to blow out skeeters who'd managed to hang on, all probably dreaming of having the four of us all to themselves--they'd eat like kings!

Later that night, back at the shop, I swabbed what body parts I could reach with some calamine lotion picked up at a local drugstore.

Early the next morning, slightly less bloated and the itching somewhat eased, we returned to the well site. Any exposed skin was literally dripping with oily, eye-stinging "6-12," the only store-bought repellent available back then.

We finished the job at about noon. Naturally, no bugs. Probably sleeping off the previous night's banquet.

To this day, more than 40 years later, I don't see a mosquito but that I think about that evening at McFaddin Ranch. And though I don't guess any of the aedes type were mixed up with their anopheles cousins, I still come down with mysterious chills and fever once in a while, with a headache like a battering ram. Used to be, malaria was considered a "foreign" disease. A light case, maybe?

In any case, at certain times of the year along that part of the Gulf Coast, they say clouds of mosquitoes drive range cattle, marsh deer, and even rabbits, plumb insane. The frenzied animals run out onto the highway, headed for the beach for some relief. Inevitably, a few are hit by cars or trucks as they slip and slide across the road. But almost nobody stops, unless the collision craters their vehicle. After all, there're seldom any witnesses.

Except maybe the dad-burned mosquitoes.