George McLeod can usually be seen enjoying a few dances and a few beers at the Fort St. John branch of the Royal Canadian Legion on a Friday night. It is one of the simple pleasures of a small town retirement from decades in the oil and gas industry that mostly revolves around card games and playing pool.
But reflecting on his eighty years shortly after his birthday in early November, McLeod told a story far stranger than country music and pints of pilsner.
Born the son of a self-taught steam locomotive engineer at the Red Cross Outpost Hospital in Grandhaven on November 3, 1932, McLeod would gradually find his way from the Catholic Mission house of Old Fort St. John and exotic locales that few Canadians will likely ever experience.
“Between picking up and delivering laundry for my mother, I gathered beer bottles,” said McLeod, joking about his first moneymaking ventures.
He sat at his kitchen tables, completely surrounded by memories in the form of photographs and old furniture, still dressed as though he was ready for work.
“I started in 1950 for a company called Machinery Depot in Calgary,” he continued. “My older brother worked there. In the wintertime, we worked in the shop. They manufactured Little Giant sawmills. We worked on a lot of that. In the summertime, we salvaged casings from old wells with hydraulic jacks.
“In 1952, I went to work for Mobil Oil.”
That position allowed him to see his share of Alberta and Saskatchewan, unaware of the adventures still on the way thanks to his relationship with oilfield service giant Halliburton that began in 1956.
“Came back here and bought some property,” he said.
Eventually, McLeod left Halliburton, briefly trying his hand at other enterprises, including a bicycle and motorcycle shop in Fort St. John.
“The spring of 1974 – break-up – Halliburton phoned me to come back,” said McLeod.
“They needed people to go overseas,” he continued. “They needed multiservice operators. And I was. So, that’s why they called me. And I was slated to go to Aberdeen, Scotland until the night before I was leaving.
“The general manager in Calgary phoned me and asked me if I’d consider going to Iran instead of Aberdeen. And you were commuting three months over there and a month home at that time. So, I said, ‘Well, in three months, I don’t think they can hurt me much.’ So, I went to Iran. And I wound up working four and a half years in Iran.”
Halliburton kept insisting that McLeod move his family to Iran as well, which he finally did in 1975.
“It was quite a thing for the kids,” he said, recalling that the journey included a week stay in London, England awaiting visas and another week in Rome, Italy before finally making their way to Iran.
Two of his children would eventually graduate from secondary school in their new home.
“My wife and my daughter cried for the first two or three days, but they got used to it,” said McLeod. “It was a good place to live.”
That would change, however, when the country began moving toward revolution in the late seventies.
“I had been talking to Iranians that I knew,” said McLeod. “Just one-on-one. You couldn’t talk to two of them.”
The reason for that was because of the nature of the secret police organization known as SAVAK.
“His SAVAK was so strong that they didn’t know who was SAVAK and who wasn’t,” McLeod explained. “So, if there was two people, even he wasn’t a SAVAK, he would be bound to report you because he didn’t know if the other one was. So, if he didn’t report it, he’d be in trouble.”
McLeod predicted at that time that there would be a revolution in Iran within ten years.
“It was less than a year,” he said. “And so we gathered up everything we couldn’t replace with dollars and shipped it home.
“It was actually the young people that incited this,” McLeod recalled. “And I’m certain that a whole lot of them were really very sorry. Because the Shah was bringing them into the 20th century.
“There was no middle class, originally, in Iran. You were either poor or rich. He was creating blue collar workers and girls were in high heels and sweaters and going to discos. Of course, when Khomeini came back – no more music, no more dancing.”
By early September of 1978, Halliburton was arranging a charter flight for the wives and children of their employees to escape Iran.
Men were allowed to leave, too, but McLeod chose to stay.
“I worked in the field mostly from then on, suspending wells and whatnot,” he said.
McLeod was preparing to go home on December 27 until all international flights leaving Iran were cancelled suddenly.
“Then we had to scramble,” he said, adding that he was finally able to find a charter flight to Bahrain on December 31.
“Just in time for the Halliburton New Year’s party,” McLeod laughed.
McLeod returned to Canada on January 4, 1979 with a full beard that he started growing as soon as the revolution began so that he would be less conspicuous among the Muslim men of Iran.
McLeod believes the beard saved him on at least one occasion.
One night, he stumbled onto a roadblock of burning tires as he was driving from the oil patch. He didn’t stop, but simply steered his vehicle into the ditch to bypass the obstacles and continue down the road. Looking back through his mirror, he saw a group of men simply standing and staring after him.
Nobody tried to stop him.
“I wasn’t here very long,” McLeod said of his return to Fort St. John.
He had a brief stint in Singapore, but there wasn’t much work to do. His next stop was Australia, but conditions weren’t quite right there either.
“So, I wound up commuting from Fort St. John to Nigeria,” said McLeod. “I was round-tripping Nigeria every 28 days.”
That was followed by a stint in the Canadian Arctic before finally settling in Fort St. John for the rest of his working life and his retirement.
“There’s a lot of different places I’ve been,” he said. “Switzerland and Germany. We holidayed in Spain. Went to the island of Majorca, Spain, the first holiday we had. They were having a lot of trouble with American workers. When they had time off, they’d go home, they wouldn’t come back. They said if you didn’t go home, they’d pay your round trip tickets to wherever you wanted to go, plus a month’s wages. So, I went to Spain – with the kids and my mother, and friends from here, and my two older sons. There was thirteen of us altogether in Spain. So, we had a good time there. And the next time we went to Malta for a month.”
It was the opportunity to travel that McLeod views as the greatest gift of his life in the oil and gas industry.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t take advantage of them,” he said. “If I had have known, I would have done it a lot sooner so I could have taken my two older boys, too.”