A Most Unforgettable Character – Joe Gayle Tanner

Joe died April 9, 2016. His funeral was in our mutual hometown of Palacios, Texas. Ron Paul country.

joe gayle tanner obituary
His youngest brother, Robert Tanner, lies at rest in the Veteran’s Memorial Cemetery in Houston. Robert was a member of our PHS Class of 1966. There are plenty of stories I could tell you about Robert, but Joe was the man with whom I labored on an offshore drilling rig.

Joe and I worked for Field Drilling Company. Our rig was probably the largest inland barge rig of the time with an Ideco Full-View derrick, Gardner-Denver GXR mud pumps and three huge diesel locomotive engines that powered the mud pumps, the draw-works (hoisting equipment) and the rotary table.

barge rig
Typical Inland Barge Rig with Standard Derrick

A typical offshore 24-hour work day in the sixties the rig drilled for eight hours, pulled the pipe for eight hours to change the drill bit, then returned all the pipe into the hole to resume drilling. Each of the three segments of time was typically eight hours. Naturally, games were played to break the cycle. That eight-hour drilling cycle was a lot easier on the body than “tripping” the pipe in or out of the hole.

Our crews consisted of six men, each getting one day a week off. Each of the three crews included a driller (the boss), a relief driller (Joe’s position), a derrick man, a motorman, and two floor-hands. The relief driller could do all the jobs and replaced each of the crew on his respective day off.

One word that described Joe was “gutsy”. He was called “Crazy Joe” by some. I called him “friend”. The fact of the matter, Joe had special instincts that got the job done.

Our shift was 3 to 11 PM. How well I remember more than one occasion when upon arrival the daylight driller would say it was time to pull the pipe string because the bit could make no more hole. Joe would squint his eyes and smile. After the daylight crew was aboard the crew boat and well out of sight and Joe on the brake (the big lever that controlled the weight on the bit), we would hear the familiar sound of pneumatic clutches engaging and disengaging. Joe would stop the rotary table, engage the draw works and the pipe

tri-cone bit
Tri-con Drill Bit

string would make its way to the crown of the derrick.  It was then the excitement began as Joe threw back the brake handle and the pipe string would plummet back into the hole as though on a suicide mission. Moments before the Kelly would be swallowed by the hole, Joe would slam on the brake, shaking the entire drilling rig as though a 7.0 Richter was breaking the earth apart. Once was not enough. Joe would repeat that event two or three times before resuming drilling. On my first time to witness this, standing beside Joe at the brake, he turned to me with his imitable smile, explaining to me how he was liberating the bit (not his words) from a ball of clay. His instincts were amazing.

You see, if you drilled too long, one or more drill bit cones would break off in the hole, precipitating a time-consuming expedition expedtion that would certainly result in someone getting fired. But, it never happened with Joe running the rig.

We were all thankful Joe knew how to break the cycle.

There are other stories I could tell about Joe Tanner, stories of his phenomenal strength and physical size.

I suppose there is one I can now safely report, years beyond the statute of limitations.

While drilling a hole in Baffin Bay, we embarked out of the port of Riviera, Texas. That particular boat ride was short, affording us ample time to stop at a beer joint on the way back home. As I recall, this particular joint was called the Diablo Bar.

On our first visit, we pushed together two tables, took our seats and a young waitress came to take our orders. When it was my turn to order, I ordered a Lone Star beer. A quick discerning look preceded her question of my age. She wanted to see my “ID”. Joe quickly told her to give me what I wanted. She hesitated and left to get her manager who returned with her. The manager explained to Joe I was too young to drink beer. Joe then stood to his feet, the diminutive manager’s head barely reaching to Joes chest. Joe looked down to the manager to say, “I say he’s old enough.” The intimidated manager agreed, turning to the waitress, he said, “Give him what he wants.”

There was good reason we were called “roughnecks”.

Afer I left the oilfield, Joe and I lost contact. The news of his passing brought to mind a flood of stories, fond memories of an extraordinary man, Joe Gayle Tanner.

John White
Rockwall, Texas

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