Barb Howard's Whipstock

by Shaun Hunter

Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

"Looking Ahead to Work in Alberta Oil Patch" (Photo: Khalid Calgary, Wikimedia Commons)

"Looking Ahead to Work in Alberta Oil Patch" (Photo: Khalid Calgary, Wikimedia Commons)

The oil patch is in Nellie Mannville’s blood. Her grandmother, an industry pioneer, used her cramping uterus to find oil, and Nellie’s mother is a cheeky, chain-smoking landman. Nellie works at an oil company cafeteria in downtown Calgary for a woman called Sauerkraut. She signs up for a new-employee rig tour. Her mother guffaws at her daughter’s sudden interest in the oil business and offers her own quick-and-dirty primer. (“Think of a dick. That’s the derrick.”) But Nellie is intent on going on the tour. She heads to the meeting place outside the company office tower downtown, past a large bronze statue in the lobby: a cowboy riding a bucking oil barrel. The sculpture hints at what’s to come. On the bus ride to the rig site, the landscape is the familiar parade of gas stations, car dealerships and lube shops. But soon after Nellie arrives at the rig, the terrain turns strange, and Nellie finds herself surrendering to the derrick.


The group photo of the rig tour participants appears in the July 1998 issue of the company newsletter. Nellie, thickish and sweaty, stands at the end of the middle row. Her jean shirt and jeans protrude from her open coveralls. Her big silver belt buckle catches the sun, twinkles like a magic egg on her belly. Sauerkraut cuts the photo out of the newsletter and pins it on the kitchen bulletin board, beside the safety chart.

“Did you enjoy yourself on that rig tour last month?” Sauerkraut asks Nellie.

“It was orgasmic.”


Barb Howard, Whipstock (2001)