The day began as most of the days had working for Turner Bros. Hot, dry, windy – you know western Oklahoma. It would not end that way though; by days’ end all of us at the location would stop and take stock of our lives. To wonder whether or not this was the path we should be on, or possibly to wonder what events in our respective lives had conspired to put us right there right then at that precise moment in time.
I was swamping for Bones that day, you may remember him from my second post, “Boomtown Rats: The Operator”. The other truck drivers and equipment operators told me to watch out working with him as he was “a little crazy”. As stated previously, Bones (I don’t think I ever heard his real name) was only a few years older than me maybe 21 or 22.
We stopped at Spivey’s as everyone did since it was only about a quarter mile from the yard to buy lunch and fill the water cooler. Did I mention the sandwiches were really good? They had someone actually make them fresh every day, not the prepackaged mystery meat sandwiches you see in the stores today!
With our water cooler filled and lunch bought we hit the road. I just came right out and asked Bones why the other guys thought he was a little crazy? He asked me, “Who said that?” and I told him pretty much everybody and laughed. He laughed and said, “Eh, they’re all just a buncha old ladies that don’t know how to have fun! But I will tell you this when I’m in that Cat (966 Cat forklift) or driving this truck, I’m all business.” Then he said, “I said that right didn’t I?” I looked at him with a furrowed brow and slightly tilted head. He looked at me dead serious and said, “Well?”. I said “Uh, yeah I guess so.” He then laughed hard and said, “I think we’re gonna get along just fine!” I shook my head and laughed with him. I was beginning to see what they meant by a little crazy.
When we arrived at the location Bones got out of the truck and tossed me the keys to the lift and told me to fire it up as he went to talk to our truck pusher who hollered out to everyone, “I don’t want any lollygagging out here today, we’re going to get this derrick tore down and moved and get a good start on the subs.” One of the swampers said, “Come on boss! Rome wasn’t built in a day ya know!” The Pusher looked around at him with a dead serious look on his face and replied, “Yeah, but that’s only ’cause we weren’t there!! Now quit messin’ around and get to work!” He walked off shaking his head and laughing just a little. We all had a good laugh to start the day.
We were rigging down and had laid the derrick over the evening before. Bones and I were loading trucks with the various smaller parts and pieces that accumulate on a rig site as the crane and gin trucks began slowly disassembling the derrick. The roughnecks that were on hitch helped with rigging down and up by doing various jobs like driving the pins out of the sections of the tower that held it together. A swapper would tie onto a section or cross-brace that was to come apart next and then when they were secured we would signal the rig hand to drive out the pin or pins and set free that particular piece of the rig. This was a fairly efficient process, we (swampers) would be guiding the section of tower to the ground or onto a truck as the roughneck moved to the next section to be removed, and so it went until something happened to break our well-orchestrated cadence.
I was tightening a tie down chain with a chain binder on a load of pipe (helping the driver) when I heard something and looked up. I saw one of the roughnecks get knocked from the catwalk by a piece of I-beam bracing that had come loose from the derrick section above where he had been standing. It was like a 6 inch beam and it had struck him in the middle of the back. His hard hat went flying off ahead of him and he landed maybe 6 feet from where he had been standing on the catwalk.
We all stopped, frozen by what had happened. I remember my vision sort of narrowed and I could feel my heart beating in my ears like a trip hammer! It felt as though time had slowed down and everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Then one of the rig hands, I think it was his driller as he seemed to be in charge, raced to his fallen friend. He screamed for someone to get an ambulance. It was the kind of scream that came not from vocal cords and breath, but from rage and adrenaline. He looked back down at his friend with a mixture of concern and dread. He then very carefully laid two fingers across the roughneck’s neck. He looked up briefly and took a deep breath, his friend was alive! The relief deeply etched in the lines on his face.
Our truck pusher and the tool pusher were already running for their respective cars. They called on the company radios for help and then returned to the fallen worker. In just a few minutes his coveralls were starting to stretch tight around his chest and back as his back was becoming very swollen but he was still alive. Someone grabbed a pair of scissors from the trailer and upon returning they very, very carefully cut down the side of his overalls to relieve the pressure caused from the swelling.
They later said it appeared as though the beam had caught him on either side of his spine, no one attempted to roll him over, we all just waited as his friend watched over him until the paramedics arrived.
One of the other swappers came up to me as I stood transfixed by the life and death scene that was playing out right before my eyes. The paramedics had arrived and were carefully putting the injured man on a gurney to be transported to the nearest hospital. The other swapper asked me what had happened exactly. I told him I was locking down one of the chain binders and heard something and just as I glanced up I saw the roughneck knocked off of the catwalk and hit the gravel. I pointed out the now stationary cross brace still hanging above the cat walk and told him it had swung down and hit him square in the back.
He gave his head a slight shake and made a grimacing face and said, “Damn! You think he’s gonna be ok?” I looked back at him and said, “I don’t know man, he got hit hard! I think he’s lucky to be alive.”
It was around noon by now and the pusher told us to take lunch. I shuffled back to our truck and as I walked past I heard a couple of the rig hands discussing how the pin that held the brace in place had come loose.
Rig Hand 1: “Man there is no way that pin came out by itself.”
Rig Hand 2: “Maybe the hair pin came out and then all the rockin around from taking the derrick apart worked the main pin out.”
Rig Hand 1: “Ok, who took the hair pin out?”
Rig Hand 2: “I don’t know, maybe it just got weak and fell out.”
Rig Hand 1: “No way man…”
I walked on as they continued to try to solve the mystery of how the pin had come loose. And it was a mystery because there was no one around that section of derrick at the time of the accident; at least I didn’t see anyone.
I got back to our truck and Bones was still walking across the location heading in my direction. As he got closer, I asked if he had heard how the roughneck was doing. He said, “No not really, I heard one of the medics say he thought he might be paralyzed but since he was barely conscious there was no way to tell for sure.”
I looked down at my sandwich and mumbled, “oh wow”. Bones shook my shoulder and asked, “Are you okay? You look kinda pale.” I looked up at him and said, “yeah man, I’m alright. I’ve just never seen anybody get hurt really bad before ya know? It kinda shook me up.”
He nodded his head and said, “Yeah man I know how you feel.” Then I asked him, “Hey Bones, do you ever worry about stuff like that out here? I mean getting hurt or worse?” It was his turn to look down and mumble. He said in a low voice, “Yeah I do, I guess it’s one of the reasons I clown around and act a fool so much.” He gave a small laugh. I laughed a little too, I was beginning to understand him a lot better. He told me that he had seen a guy get an arm pinched really badly and he had heard later that they had to amputate it. He told me that was the biggest reason he had learned to run a lift, he thought it was the safest piece of equipment in the patch to run.
We finished our lunch and both of the pushers called all of us rig movers and rig hands to a quick meeting. They told us the roughneck was conscience and that he was going to be okay, but he would probably need a lot of time to get back to the point where he would be able to walk normally again. The brace had indeed caught him in the middle of the back and fortunately it hit on either side of his spine. His back wasn’t broken from the looks of the x-rays, but there was damage to his spine and only time would tell how much.
Our respective pushers told us to take it easy and slow for the rest of the day and for God’s sake be careful! We did.
The rest of the day was uneventful. We all moved at a much slower pace and were probably overly careful, but that was okay. Most of us were deep in thought for the rest of the day.
I remember thinking that I may have made a very bad decision coming to Oklahoma to work the oilfields. I thought about the suddenly very real possibility that the next time someone was whisked away, lights flashing and sirens blaring, it could be me in the ambulance. For the first time in my life I think I realized I could die, I mean we “know” we will die someday, but on that day I realized on a deep emotional level that it wasn’t just old people and soldiers that died. It could be any of us, even me next time.
I remember thinking also that if I had taken the more travelled route after high school I would be sitting in a classroom in NDSU right then listening to some professor wax ecstatic about a poem by Yeats or painting by Monet. That thought put a smile on my face because I really felt like I was learning a lot more than those that were sitting in that classroom. I decided to continue my employment at Turner Bros. Trucking.
Bones and I headed back to the yard that evening and after a few quiet introspective moments Bones looked over at me and said, “Damn, what a helluva day this turned out to be huh?” I replied in a subdued voice, “No shit man, I don’t want any more days like today for a long time.” Then I looked at him real serious and he looked over at me with concern on his face and I said, “I said that right didn’t I?” and started laughing. He punched my arm, slapped the hard hat I was wearing off, called me an asshole and we both laughed hard for the first time since the accident.
The roughneck was going to be okay and so were we.
I also decided that from that day forward I would be a lot more mindful with what was going on around me and try my best to avoid any situations that were obviously dangerous…of course my turn on the accident carousel would come about a month or so later. But that’s a story for another time.
We heard later that the roughneck was indeed walking again, but with a cane and his doctors were saying he would be back to full strength in a month or so, this was about a month after the accident.
The summer of ’81 is one I will never forget! I learned a lot that summer, and grew up a lot. It was hot, windy, dusty, hard and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.