Road Trip: Oil Fields and Reptile Country








Yesterday’s sojourn took us to Morgan City, Louisiana. Deep in the sole of the Louisiana “boot”, Morgan City is an industrial town whose main industries are shrimp and petroleum, and they have a rather large festival to prove it. The Labor Day weekend festival honors the workers in both industries according to their website, and features foods, a good southern beauty queen, music and all kinds of assorted activities. I’m definitely going to put it on my calendar next year. My parents live 12 miles from there, so I have a definite place to stay. Mark your calendar and come join me. You may want to stock up on mothballs, though … I’ll tell you why in just a minute.

The technical college we visited is a small college in appearance, but it has a distinctive Marine program which makes it a very popular choice for the local and maybe not so local students. Technical colleges, of course, exist to provide training to young workers to enable them to get jobs in whatever local industry is predominant. And, of course, both shrimp and petroleum workers are out in the waters here. Yes, in Texas, there are oil fields on land. But, here …. the rigs are in the Gulf of Mexico. I hear tell that there is a place in Fourchon LA where helicopters fly all day long taking oil field workers out in the gulf and back home again. I plan to visit there soon. I joked to a friend of mine that I’m going to go hunting for a man there … or two. Because, you see, they work 21 days on and 21 days off. I could head over, pick one out as he comes in, have him for a boyfriend for 21 days and drop him back off. On the way out, I’ll pick out another one. It sounds like a good plan to me. But, I digress… as I always do when talking about men.

We talked to the diving instructor at the school. They train young men to weld and repair and build oil riggings underneath the water. They had diving tanks that where the students practiced projects like taking apart large steel structures and putting them back together in almost zero visibility to simulate their working environment. The program – which always has a waiting list – is very popular among the locals. I asked how much a diver made, and the instructor said it was hard to say because they work on assignments. They are not on staff. But, they get paid an hourly rate just to be on site plus overtime and – according to the instructor, the lucrative pay – the depth pay. They get paid a lot of money for every foot they dive down into the murky gulf waters. As with all hazardous jobs, the pay can be quite high. The program there just gets divers entry level positions. It takes years to really get into the good diving jobs. The instructor said the training they offer costs about $30,000 in a private school, so it’s very cost-effective for the students that take it here at the cost of a technical college tuition.

Kathryn, our guide, also took us to the Water Survival training area. It reminded me of that scene in Top Gun where the characters got in that “bullet” that shot them down in the water, and, disoriented, they had to climb out and save themselves. There is a helicopter simulator which simulates a helicopter crashing into the water. The students then have to extricate themselves from the “copter” and swim to safety. They also practice donning a life preserver and sitting in the water for long periods of time as they might have to do in the case of an accident. They feature a program called Battlefields to Oilfields sponsored by the VA that helps transition veterans to oil field workers. The 28 day program is always full, and the instructors said they have a lot of fun with the veterans who come out for the training.

Kathryn talked to us about the campus they have down close to Grand Isle. She worked there for awhile. She said they had Snake Alerts in the spring and fall when the snakes would come to warm themselves under the buildings that were on stilts. If the Alert was “on”, students had to be mindful of closing all doors and windows lest the reptiles sneak into the buildings where it was warmer. She said you could always smell mothballs because they deter snakes, and they’d put them all over the buildings. Tiffany and I joked that we were going by the Dollar General and stuffing our pockets full of mothballs before we went down there again. And, we do want to go back. Kathryn told us they’d take us on a tour of their big Marine facility the next time they come. There, they have simulators for boating and full-scale diving operations. It sounds really interesting.

The ladies in the office recommended we stop by Castalano’s on the way out for lunch. We followed the GPS directions because we couldn’t figure it out from the directions given us, and we finally found it. A non-descript building with no sign in a residential area turned out to be the spot, and we could tell by the number of trucks parked down the street. The only sign telling us we were in the right place was painted on the door. I would have NEVER stopped at this place without a recommendation. I could tell when we walked in this was a great food joint. I asked three guys at the front table what we should order, and they recommended the Chicken Parmesan and the plate lunch, Monday’s Red Beans and Rice and Sausage. As we walked away, one of them said, “Oh, yeah … make sure you get a cup of gumbo.” We flinched when the cup of gumbo was $4.50, but it wasn’t a cup. It was a bowl. When I tell you that it was the best gumbo I ever put in my mouth, I am not exaggerating. Tiffany drank the last drop out of the bowl, and I threatened to eat the bowl just so I could get all of it down. Dark, smokey and rich, it was spiced perfectly with andouille sausage and chicken. Holy cow, was that good? And the rest of the meal was just as good. I opted for the traditional Monday Red Beans and Rice and Tiff got the Chicken Parmesan. They served them in styrofoam containers. And, I had the leftovers for breakfast.

Morgan City is not the kind of town that you’d drive through and say, “Isn’t this cute?” although there are parts of it that are charming. It’s industrial. But, I’ve found in Louisiana, you have to open your mind to experience what is special about each place. Many times it’s the people, and we had a blast with the friendly people at the school and the servers at Castalano’s. We passed a little store that sold all kinds of game and food I’d never even thought of eating like coon and garfish. I took pictures, but I would have loved to have gone inside and had a conversation with the people there. I’m sure they would be interesting, and I know they’d be friendly. I was offered a reporting job at the Morgan City newspaper when I got out of college. I wonder what my life would have been like if I’d taken it. Would I be waiting for my oilfield worker to come home and head down to Castalano’s for dinner? Or would I be teaching English at the local technical college? Maybe I’d be stocking up with mothballs from the General Store in the spring and fall to keep the snakes out of my closets. I can’t imagine that life. But, the people seem happy. And, I do think I’ll check out that festival next year. Who knows what I’ll find?










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