Folks back home in Beauregard, Miss, may be surprised to learn that their Elizabeth King has become the first woman honcho ever on an offshore natural gas platform. But they knew early on that feisty Liz was going to do something different with her life.

At the age of 8 she decided to pay for all her own clothes. When she realized the part-time jobs were going to little boys, Liz persuaded a metal worker to build her a portable nut-roasting oven. She was soon selling peanuts all over town. At 10 she joined some male friends in helping load 100-pound sacks of seed onto a railroad car, but was fired when the foreman discovered she was a girl. She became her own boss again, hustling baggage and peddling magnolias.

Four decades later King is still freckle-faced, ginger-haired and pioneering new fields for women. Her official title is "operator" of Sun Gas Company's $50 million West Cameron 639 production platform 130 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico. The job entails heavy responsibility for safety, maintenance and the production of 86 million cubic feet of natural gas every day. Although the foreman is officially the platform boss, it is Liz, as operator, who handles the day-to-day problems and takes charge of the nine-man crew during the foreman's absences.

Working every-other-week shifts, Liz drives her gray pickup truck five and a half hours from her home in Thibodaux, La. to Sabine Pass in Texas. There she boards a helicopter for a 90-minute flight to West Cameron 639. Once checked into her air-conditioned 10-by-10-foot stateroom atop the bright yellow, 10-story-high platform, King dons overalls and hard hat to begin her rounds. Before her 12-to 14-hour day ends, the 5'8", 118-lb. Liz will have walked 25 miles up, down and around the platform.

King keeps watch over a control panel that warns of malfunction with flashing lights and assorted alarms. A wavering siren can mean serious trouble with any of the 18 high-pressure gas wells. Then King has exactly three minutes before a costly shutdown to diagnose and correct the problem (anything from improper gas temperatures to dangerously high pressure in the pipeline to shore). "You're sitting on a keg of dynamite," she says, "and you never quite forget it."

It is, she concedes, lonely work. "I know how the astronauts feel. Being out on the platform is something like outer space. You long to walk barefoot in the grass, smell some flowers. You even get where you like bugs. We don't have any on the platform. But," she adds, "working offshore helped me get everything together."

Most of her life, King admits, she has been vaguely dissatisfied. At 18, when her parents died, she went to work as a marine telephone operator. Then came a succession of jobs—owning a share in a California bar, panning for gold in Alaska ("I found one nugget in three months and finally gave up") and selling real estate.

In 1968 a computer company she was working for wanted to transfer her to Saudi Arabia. "Not if you gave me a camel with two humps," she replied. "I'm a Southern girl. I love the damp and swamps and the rain." Later she signed on with an oil company as a roustabout, wrestling 20-foot sections of pipe weighing up to 600 pounds. It was grueling physical labor for the toughest male. "The foreman always made sure I had the nastiest jobs," she recalls. "But I wouldn't let him get me down. I must have loaded enough pipe to go around the world three times."

Liz switched to Sun Gas as a maintenance worker in 1977 and last May was promoted to her current job, with a salary that averages $2,000 a month. Recalling her first stormy night at sea, she admits, "I was scared to death and sick as a dog—but I'd have bitten my tongue off before I'd let anyone know."

King acknowledges that such single-minded determination has exacted a price. "Sometimes I miss not having a family," she concedes, "but I didn't want to be responsible for other lives. When I want to go, I just put my toothbrush in my car and leave." And the future? "At 50, life is just starting—you have a whole warehouse of knowledge to start with," says Liz. "There's a wealth of opportunity for mature women. Maybe you have to try harder—but it's there."