I wrote this in 2010 and published it on Oily Stuff in 2017. It was actually one of the first posts I did on the blog nearly six years and my writing skills were way shy of good reading.
James Tuppen told me this story about Angola at the shop one evening, long ago.
Ace's daughter read this on the old OILPRO forum years ago and wrote me once to say she had asked her dad about this story, whether it was true and Ace's response was... "close enough."
I am re-posting it for fun and to remind everyone that stories get stretched out over time and in the end its how you tell them that is as good as if they were all perfectly true or not. Most well control hands were great story tellers and could manage a room like magic. David Thompson was like that, so was James. They learned from Coots, naturally.
This has got some bad oilfield language in it; its not a bed time story for the grandkids.
When Red Adair's hands bought the Boots and Coots company back in 1998 they kept all of the white firefighting equipment we had and painted it red.
They kept Ace Barnes too. I more or less think they couldn't get rid of 'ol Ace no matter how hard they might have tried; he was a permanent fixture around Boots and Coots, Inc and a hoot to work with. I heard he was still going on a few blowouts until just a few years ago when his hip got bad and he retired; hell, he must be in his 80's by now. I have not seen him since we were on a little fire together south of Victoria, Texas about 14 years ago. I’d like to say that 14 years hasn’t been near long enough but truth is I miss ‘ol Ace. He is a piece of work.
The Legendary Ace Barnes From Odessa, Texas
Ace and Coots Matthews were best of buds; they met in Oklahoma on a blowout 30 years ago where Barnes was sitting on a rig as a mud engineer for Baroid. He and Coots hit it off and when Boots and Coots got spread thin doing well control world around the world, Coots would call ‘ol Ace out in West Texas to ask him to help out and Ace would jump on a jet and end up in Bolivia one week, Singapore the next.
Coots I think appreciated the fact that Ace could drink as much as he could in the bar after work and that’s pretty much why he got hired on. Barnes was loud and obnoxious, colorful to say the least, though that color would be kind of described as dull moldy-green by some. David Thompson, a lead off firefighter at Boots and Coots, called Ace ‘the mouth’. They were good friends and went on lots of jobs together.
When Ace was a kid he was putting gasoline into a hot lawn mower and it flashed up into the left side of his face leaving him badly scared. He looked the part of the tough, oil well firefighter with his burns and Coots always had a lot of fun with that. When people would ask how Ace got burned Coots would say… “accidently snagged the son of a bitch with an Athey wagon hook and drug him thru big fire in Wyoming one time; thought I'd killed the little skinny bastard.”
Coots and Ace were pallbearers once in a funeral in Houston and were riding out to the cemetery together in Coot's white Cadillac with the fire stickers on the door, engaged in meaningful conversation about money, Coots favorite subject.
“I am mad at my kids right now, Ace; ain't gonna leave my money to anyone when I die...gonna take it all with me, gonna put in bags and get buried with it, every nickel of it.”
Ace thought a second and said,
"Well pods (Ace lingo for partner), you better make sure them bags is asbestos.”
They had a big laugh and pulled out of the funeral procession at a little liquor store on the corner and bought a six pack for the rest of the drive out to the cemetery. Coots justified it by saying they had some heavy lifting to do later.
Didn’t much matter to Ace how long a man had been in the oilfield, everybody he was ever around was nothing but a ‘goddamn worm.’ I worked in the oilfield 30 years before I went to work for Boots and Coots and the first time Ace Barnes called me a worm I thought I was going to hit him up the side of the head with a 24 inch pipe wrench.
But he’d been with Boots and Coots lots longer than me and had the hammer; I just had to grin and bare it. Between his 3 packs of cigarettes a day and his potty-mouth Ace Barnes would often leave a lot of folks totally repulsed and disgusted in general with the entire oil industry. But a legend Ace was, just ask him. He always had an answer, always knew more than you did, always had something important to say about everything... and you better by God be listening when he said it.
Coots got tired of Ace mouthin’ off one day and asked him if there was anything in the world that he didn’t know about and ‘ol Ace got real quiet a minute, deep in thought, then said yeah, he was from Odessa, Texas and he did not know much about whales.
Well, Coots went out and bought him a coffee table book about whales and for the next year that is all Barnes could talk about was sperm whales, humpback whales, right whales, Beluga whales; if you needed to know anything about whales Barnes could tell you.
Ace Barnes Hollering At a Very Clean, Boots Hansen; Kuwait, 1991
Ace was the first oil well firefighter to arrive in Kuwait in February 1991, almost a month before anybody else got there to start the firefighting campaign. Coots often said he sent Ace over there to do some PR work but all Barnes really did was raise hell with the staff at the Hilton in Kuwait City and stayed out of sight of the locals while he drank whiskey and looked out the window of his room at over 400 burning wells in the great Burgan Field.
When CNN found out a firefighter with Boots and Coots, Inc. was already in Kuwait they set up an elaborate interview set in the lobby of the hotel one morning, four cameras, audio booms, wires and cables everywhere; Christiane Amanpour and the famous, Ace Barnes from Odessa, Texas. Not Midland, by God...Odessa; Ace had to get that straightened out from the get-go. Two hours of questions about fires and blowouts, what it was like to be around them, was it scary, what should the world expect from the fires in Kuwait, was their going to be permanent environmental damage, enough footage to make a full length, feature movie.
In the end, however, CNN only got about 15 seconds out of the interview to show on national television because every other word out of Ace’s mouth was goddamn, shit, wormy mother*##&@!, this... stupid sumbitches, that. They asked him repeatedly to dial his bad language down a notch and all Barnes could say was that he was doing the best he could.
There were just 7-8 of us at Boots and Coots, Inc. when I was there in the mid-nineties, before Martin and Joe and Danny were killed in Syria; we didn’t all sometimes get along that well because of big egos...enough testosterone around the shop to float an oil tanker, David would always say. But when we were in, waiting on a job, it was sure fun to hang around the office, burn meat and drink beer back in the big warehouse where we kept the big, high pressure pumps, Athey wagons and other equipment. Coots could tell a story better than anyone I ever met and even though we heard most of them over and over we always set with him listening, totally captivated, most of the time doubled over in laughter.
James Tuppen was a top lead-off hand with Boots and Coots back then; been there a long time. I liked James a lot because he was tough and smart, kind of gentle like Coots. He could tell good stories like all well control hands can.
One of my favorite Ace Barnes stories was one that ‘Tup’ use to sometimes tell and it went like this:
James and Ace had been on a blowing well off the coast of Italy, had capped it, killed it and were about to finish up when Chevron called the Houston office to say it had a lost control of a well on a little jack-up rig in about 300 feet of water, offshore Angola; send somebody as soon as possible... spare no cost at getting them there! In on a jet, out on a chicken bus, we always use to say. Coots decided to pull Ace off the job in Italy and send him down to Africa leaving Tuppen to tidy-up a day or so before going to Angola himself.
Chevron, it seemed, had driven 30 inch conductor pipe to about 200 feet below the mud line, nippled-up the BOP stack and was drilling surface hole at 800 feet with a 14 ¾ inch bit when the well blew out from a shallow, unknown gas sand. The flow was still confined to the inside of the conductor but for how long nobody knew. If the blowout flow broached the bottom of the pipe they would lose the rig in a crater, then shit would really hit the fan. Chevron hollered for help so off the rescue went the gallant, Ace Barnes.
He’d been down in Angola for less than a day making the necessary assessments for killing the well, talking on the phone to Coots back in Houston, staying on a 90 foot work boat anchored up nearby and getting picked on and off the platform by crane and safety basket when Tuppen arrived in Luanda and boarded a helicopter to head out to the well.
On the way out to the rig Tuppen had his head set on in the back of the helicopter and spoke to Ace via radio on the work boat; the conversation went something like this:
“This is Jetstar Alpha four zero two niner inbound for rig tender Romeo Sage, come in Ace Barnes this is James Tuppen…hey, Ace, my ETA is 40 minutes, tell me what you got out there.”
A few minutes later Ace got on the radio and responded, “Alpha four zero two niner this is the rig tender, Romeo Sage…hey pods I hope you brought some goddamn food, they ain’t got nothin’ to eat out here but rice and goat meat; you gotta an extra toothbrush in your bag, pods? These knotheads on this boat out here done stole mine. Goddamn worms. This well is blowing hard, pods; plumb over the crown, man it’s a getting’ it! Ja’ copy that, Tup?”
“10-4 Romeo Sage; copy that. What’s the well making, Ace?”
“Pods, it’s a making lotsa water, boocoos gas… and FISH!!”
“Negative Romeo Sage, your breakin’ up, repeat again Ace, what’s the well making?”
“You heard me, pods, this sumbitch is blowing hard and it’s a makin’ lotsa gas and water and goddamn fish!! Roger, out."
“Ace, am in the air, ETA your location now 20 minutes, whadaya mean fish?…come in Romeo Sage, did you copy that... what in the hell do you mean, fish?”
So 20 minutes later Tuppens’ chopper is circling the rig getting ready to set down on the helipad and just like Ace said the blowout flow was at least a 50 feet over the top of the crown, the well making an ocean of water and the noise deafening. The first thing Tuppen notices when he cleared the rotating blades on the chopper is the stench of rotting fish, enough to make him think about giving up his first class, British Airways breakfast from that morning.
The entire rig floor and platform deck was covered with dead fish, in some places stacked on top of each other 3 deep. Fish everywhere.
Tuppen is standing there trying to figure what the hell is going on when Ace walks up behind him, jabs him in the ribs with his elbow, and points toward the rig floor. WHUMFH !! up comes a 10 pound fish thru the BOP stack and rotary table like it was shot out of a cannon, bouncing off the derrick legs, the racking board, all the way to the crown some 130 feet straight up. The dead fish then falls back to the deck on the upwind side of the flow with a heavy thud.
Ace leans over and hollers in Tuppens ear, “wait a minute pods, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, we’re in a big school now,” then the well starts raining big fish, thud, thud, thud, fish hitting all over the deck and on top the dog house roof, living quarters, everywhere. Tuppen can’t believe his eyes.
Barnes screams again, “stand back, pods, one of them sumbitches hit you in the goddamn head you’ll be a dead motherf…. INCOMMING !!"
"Hey, pods did you bring me a toothbrush?”
Turns out when Chevron moved the rig onto the drill site they had a hard time driving the 30 inch conductor so they cut large windows in the pipe with a cutting torch to allow the mud and silt from the seafloor to displace back out onto the ocean. Before they could get their surface hole dug, protective casing set and cemented back to surface, the well blew out. The flow was so great rushing up the conductor pipe it created a vacuum at those windows cut below the water line and sea water, mud, sand, grass, shells, and rocks were sent hurling straight up thru the rig floor over top of the derrick crown. Any fish that swam within a hundred yards of the well and was small enough to get sucked through the windows got launched up thru the rotary table.
Tuppen ordered the rig tender to move a quarter mile further out and upwind to re-anchor, the stink was so bad, and he and Ace sat there another full day watching fish get hurled into the blue yonder, smoking cigarettes and debating what the hell to do. They ate fresh fish on the work boat that night but Tuppen said Barnes bitched about the fish tasting worse than the goat meat. About the only thing Ace had on his mind, Tuppen said, was how he was going to get even with the goddamn wormy rig hand that stole his toothbrush.
James and Ace developed a plan, of sorts, to try and pump mud down the drill pipe but before they had to get back up on the platform the well bridged off on its own and died. They spent several more days pumping cement and securing the well before Chevron released them.
After three bottles of Crown and a hot shower at a hotel in Luanda they both left for Texas; Tuppen for Houston, Ace Barnes back to Odessa.
A week later Ace got a package from Coots with a dozen toothbrushes in it and a book about quantum physics.
Ace Barnes From Odessa, Texas
I love ol’ Ace; he is a good man. He is a part of my past that I will hang on to until I can’t hang on anymore. In the end it isn’t the stuff we have piled up that matters all that much; it isn’t the places we went, the things we did with our lives.
It is who we did it all with that we remember the most.
I have run across, run into, been run off, run from and plum run over by lots of colorful men in my life. Chip and Blue, Boots and Cuatro, Ace, Claytie, Coots, Bubba, Red and Cee-Cee, Budro and ‘ol Ray; Texas has got character and it makes sense to me that it’s got men in it with plenty of character. Tough men, smart men, mostly old... men who pulled themselves up and along by leather straps and heavy chains; men with big nuts, toughened by the wind and sun, by heartache and sorrow. Men built of iron and iron headed. They walked into big fires or stretched long strands of barbwire over dry dirt, required respect and always by God got it. Quiet, loud, mean, friendly, slow and steady, wealthy and broke; their way or the highway.
I am better for them all.