The air was hot, dry and filled with dust. I could smell the burning diesel from the truck as I hooked up the last line to tie down our boom poles. The pusher had shut us down earlier and called an informal meeting with all of us.
He ran his fingers through his short graying hair and waited for the last of the stragglers to get close enough to hear what he had to say. When everyone was within earshot he tried to talk but one of the forklift operators had left his lift truck running and after several “huhs?” and “what was that?” he stopped and told Kevin to, “Shut that rattling damn forklift off”. In the vacuum of quietude that resulted from all of the equipment being off at once he told us all that there was a legal problem with something and as a result we were to drop what we were doing and return to the yard. The lawyers were going to let us know what was going on first thing Monday morning. This was on a Saturday just a little while after lunch and we were around an hour out from the yard so not only would we get off early that day, we would have a Sunday off!! My first official day off since I had started working at Turner Bros.
As our truck rolled out of the location onto the lease road, Mickey asked me to grab him a coke out of the cooler at my feet. I handed him his coke and he told me he was “headin out” as soon as we got back to the yard. I asked him where he was “headin out” to and he said he was going to go home, tell the wife to pack an overnight bag and they were heading to Amarillo for a night of fun in the big city coming back Sunday afternoon. He then explained that these free days off didn’t happen very often and he was going to make the best off it. He then asked me “What are you gonna do with your day off?” I told him that I was heading back to camp to try and hitch a ride with one of the campground guys to Foss Lake. I wanted to take a nice long shower, then after I washed about ten pounds of caliche dust off of me I was going to grab something to eat and head back to the campground and just relax. As for Sunday I told him I would probably just go exploring since I still wasn’t very familiar with the area yet, and hit the laundry mat. He looked at me and shook his head and frowned. I looked back at him and said “What?” He told me, “When I was your age I woulda been out raisen hell and partyin it up!” I said “Oh yeah, well I think I had enough raising hell and partying to last me quite a while the night before I graduated high school.” He laughed and again shook his head.
After returning to the campground I asked around to see if anyone was getting ready to go to the lake (this was a fairly common thing actually. Someone with a pickup would take up a dollar or two collection for gas from anyone that wanted to hit the public showers at the lake. If you were broke that was okay too since most of us at the camp were just getting to work and didn’t have much money. Then all that wanted to go would pile in the back of the truck and off we went.) Someone was in fact planning on going in about an hour so I gathered up some clothes and waited for the Foss lake express. We were a ragtag looking bunch to be sure! I remember looking around at everyone in the bed of the pickup and thinking that we looked like a crew of escapees from a chain gang. Most of us had been working in the field all day and were covered in dust and grime. A motley crew if ever you saw one, it’s really no wonder the locals called us oil field trash.
After returning from our much needed shower and stopping in at the Big Sky truck stop for an absolutely wonderful cheeseburger we all headed back to the campground.
Upon arriving at the camp we noticed several of the guys had started a small campfire and were sitting around said campfire intently listening to a story being told by one of the newest citizens of Clinton Lake campground.
A little bit about the new guy, I forget his name- not that it matters as we all agreed it was more than likely phony anyway. He claimed to be from Chicago (Chi-town as he called it) and was pretty secretive about his past. I would put his age to have been around mid to late thirties maybe forty. He was about 6 feet tall and would have weighed in at around 190 if I were to guess. His hair was just past shoulder length and brown in color with the occasional streak of grey. He always kept it tied back in a ponytail. His eyes, there was something about his eyes, something strange. He had the very unnerving habit of staring kind of through you rather than at you. He would be looking straight at you and yet it was as though he was somewhere else and at those times he looked just a little crazy. I have to add that he was very polite most of the time, almost too polite like maybe it was forced.
As we climbed out of the truck and gathered our dirty clothes and put them up, I noticed one of the guys I knew coming back from the weeds. I said, “Hey man, what’s goin on with the campfire tales?” He told me that a bunch of the guys had bought a couple cases of beer and had been swapping tales of life back home. He said, “You might as well come over and have a beer and join in”. I said, “sure, why not?”
We, along with a couple of the others that had just gotten back from the lake, joined in the circle as our new friend acknowledged us and welcomed us to the discussion. Several of the guys that had been listening seized the opportunity to leave and excused themselves leaving about seven or eight of us huddled around the flickering, dancing light of the fire.
He told us new arrivals that he had just been telling everyone about some of his exploits back home in Chi-Town as a pool player. He was quick to let everyone know he wasn’t a hustler but played for money and did pretty well at it. Anyone could tell he’d had a few beers. He was getting pretty chatty, the several cans of social courage he had drunk had loosened his tongue considerably.
He proceeded to explain how he had been playing pool at a club downtown. He told us that he had played a double or nothing game with someone and they had lost the double. It was after this he told us that everything went south. There were words and threats and eventually he said he had left to avoid any trouble. We waited expectantly as he took a long drink from the beer he was lovingly holding. He then got that vacant “lights are on but nobody’s home” look again and just stared for what seemed like forever but was probably a minute or so. When he came back to us he looked around as if he had forgotten we were there. He then cleared his throat and continued.
“I went home after I left the club” he said. “I sat there in my apartment and drank a couple whiskeys and the more I thought about it the madder I got.” He looked around intently at each of us in turn as he said, “You know what I mean?” All of us were just kind of nodding and mumbling things like “Sure man, yeah”. He said he had had enough and headed back down to the club this time with his 38 revolver in his pocket.
He told us he had waited outside the club sipping whiskey in his car until the sore loser came out of the front door of the club. It wasn’t quite closing time yet but it was close, no one else was on the street. He told us he jumped out of his car and approached the loser and demanded that he pay him what he was owed. He said the loser just laughed at him and told him F* off. At around this same time the loser guys’ buddies are walking out the door and see our story teller and threaten him. He then proceeds to pull his gun and fires 2 shots at their feet telling them to mind their own business. He said they must have thought that was a good idea as they turned and ran the other way. “When I turned back around the loser was slowly backing away from me,” he told us. “I didn’t say anything to him I just walked up to him with my pistol still at my waist pointing in his direction.” He told us the guy dropped to his knees and begged him not to shoot him. He said, “I never said anything else to him I just started kicking him. I kicked him in the chest, I kicked him in the head.”
He got quiet for a very uncomfortable minute and then continued, “There was blood, lots of blood, then I heard sirens, they were getting closer. Someone must have heard the gunshots and called the cops.” The look on his face as he spun this tale was cold and unfeeling, his features sharp and harsh in the glimmering fire light. He said he looked back down and the man was lying still on the sidewalk. He looked down at his beer at this point and took a long draw from it. He said he wasn’t sure if he was alive or dead but he was thinking he was probably dead. He told us he ran to his car got in and tore off down the street. He said he then went to his apartment and gathered up some clothes and personal things and took off “Right then, right that moment.”
He finished his story by telling us of his trip to St. Louis and that he had been doing odd jobs and lying low. He said he thought maybe St. Louis was too close to home and had heard about the oil boom so he headed west. By this time we were all sort of looking at each other and really at a loss for words, I mean really what do you say to a perfect stranger that just told you the tale of how he became a murderer? Or so he thought.
After a long awkward silence he finally got up and wandered (staggered) off toward his car. The thing I really remember most clearly is how the shadows and light made by the fire danced on all of our faces. It was very eerie and surreal. There was a loud snap in the fire and we all jumped just a little – okay maybe some of us a lot! I guess that was the sign we were looking for because as a group we all got up and headed to our respective tents and vehicles.
None of us slept well that night…
I awoke the next morning after a fitful sleep and crawled out of my tent. I went over to one of the faucets and stuck my head under it and pulled up on the lever, the rush of cold water brought me completely awake in an instant. I shook my head and stood up. I saw the same friend I had talked to the night before and waved to him as he headed my direction. I said, “Man was that dude serious last night?” He said he really wasn’t sure but that he heard a car start around 4:00 or 4:30 in the morning and looked out in time to see him drive off. He said, “I figure he realized what he said last night and decided it was time to move on, you know?” I said, “Yeah, I hear that. Did you see the look in his eyes? Man, it gives me the creeps just thinking about it!”
Needless to say none of us ever saw him again. But to this day as I sit here writing this it still gives me the creeps. The look on his face and the vacant dead eyes will haunt me forever.