Preface: This is the first "chapter" of what will be a "quadrilogy" chronicling a part of my teen years that had a profound effect on my later life. I do not offer these in any kind of "I'm proud of this" boasting way. If I have any motive other than simply wanting to be remembered it s a hope. A hope that my life might encourage someone, some parent, husband or wife to have faith that the old adage "as the twig is bent so shall the tree grow" is not inevitably true. I humbly believe that, with the grace of God and the perseverance of loved ones who stayed the course with me, my early life was NOT predictive of my later years. I had no sudden epiphany. In fact the road upward from those influences was long and difficult with many detours.
I do not fault my parents for allowing me to experience these things. During those years they were recovering from the traumatic experience of having had four of their five sons involved in the horrors of WWII, with one of them being Killed in Action. As I went through my teen years they were emotionally battered and bruised. I never doubted their love for me and I love them for the courage they showed in dealing with the tribulations, terrible experiences and horrors they endured during their marriage. I certainly could have done no better.
On a warm June day in the summer of 1947, five months before my 16th birthday, I loaded the saddlebags on my little English motorcycle (Known, in rare British overstatement, as “The Famous James.”), strapped a small suitcase onto its luggage carrier, gave Mother a “goodbye kiss” and set forth on what turned out to be a 350 mile journey to a remote little village called Montezuma, Kansas (Pop 590). That wasn’t where I intended to go when I waved “goodbye.” My goal was sort of a loosely constructed notion of “Going to Western Kansas and following the wheat harvest.”
That was an annual ritual in the Midwest. Contractors owning a fleet of trucks and combines would begin harvesting wheat in Oklahoma in late spring and move with the ripening wheat as far north as it was being grown. My adolescent dream was to join one of those crews. What stories I’d have to tell when I returned to school in September: stories and a pocketful of money.
This whole scheme was a fantasy concocted by Don Whittington and I as we sat, paying no attention to the teacher, in a sophomore biology class. This was shortly after WWII had ended and motorcycles were becoming common. Well, both of us wanted a Harley-Davidson and we wanted to “take delivery” of them at the Harley-Davidson factory. Our plan was to work all summer, squeeze our pennies like Ebenezer Scrooge and after finishing the harvest take our hard-earned boodle to the Harley Davidson factory and ride back home astride the spoils of our hard work. My friend Don turned out to be fickle, or wiser than I. After school dismissed for the summer he was nowhere to be found. But alone or with him I was going to “do it.”
After a long day of riding westward, during which time I rode through a torrential rainstorm and ran out of gas in the middle of 40 miles of desolation between Medicine Lodge and Coldwater KS, I spent the night in Coldwater. Back then wheat harvest workers were hired as vineyard workers where hired in biblical times. Job-seekers went out onto the sidewalk and stood around hoping some farmer would hire them. And that's how I was hired by a wheat farmer who was driving by trolling for workers. I was elated. This was the beginning of my grand adventure.
We arrived at his farm where he immediately sent me start up a tractor and drive it out to a field of ripened wheat. He had asked before hiring me if I knew how to drive a tractor. Truth was, the only “farming” experience I had was helping Dad in his garden and I'd never driven a tractor in my life; but like most American boys of that day I “knew” that if it had wheels and an engine I could drive it. So I lied a convincing “Yes.” Within fifteen minutes after being given that assignment, reality came crashing down around me.
Few tractors in those days had electric starters. Generally they had a crank hanging down in front. Turn the crank and the engine starts. John Deere tractors however had a highly idiosyncratic starting mechanism. John Deere drivers started their engine by spinning a huge flywheel located just below and in front of the driver’s left foot. I’d never heard of such a thing. I was still poking around the front of the engine looking for the crank handle when the farmer showed up. He saw that I was abysmally ignorant and gave me another task that required no knowledge of anything other than how to use a scoop shovel.
After working a very long, very backbreaking day shoveling more grains of wheat than I’ve eaten in my entire lifetime, inside an airless, metal grain bin, the farmer called it quits and took me back to town. He said nothing about working for him the next day and I didn’t ask. We both knew that I wasn’t cut out for wheat harvesting. I took my pay, slept the sleep of an exhausted laborer, woke up, mounted my bike and headed farther west with a modified adventure in mind.
But I "headed" at a much slower speed than the day before. I had all but destroyed my little “James’s” engine as a result of running out of gas. It had a two-cycle engine which, like today’s chain saws, required that oil be mixed in the gas tank to lubricate the engine. When I ran out of gas a kindly farmer working in a field alongside the highway siphoned a bit of gasoline from his tractor and gave it to me, but he didn’t have any oil. I had only a smidgeon of oil in a can in my saddlebags. I put what oil I had in the gas tank and drove on to Coldwater. A case of utter stupidity. It was a death-blow to my little bike’s engine. It still ran, but I had emasculated it. It now had barely enough power to propel us down the highway in third gear on level ground and no wind. At the slightest headwind or incline I had to downshift into second gear and occasionally first. But I soldiered on; pursuing my fantasy.
Another booming business in the mid-1940’s was pipeline construction. Oil and gas producers in America were frantically hiring contractors to build large diameter (24 to 30 inches) pipelines and get them buried in the ground so their products could efficiently be brought to consumers. That demand created a group of men who were collectively called “pipeliners.” My oldest brother had come up through the ranks of “pipelining” and was now a Gang Foreman for a company that had contracted to build a 30” pipeline from Hugoton to Wichita KS. That gave birth to my “modified plan” for making big money.
At the moment he was living in Montezuma KS. My new plan was to go there and “become a pipeliner.” I didn’t call and ask about working for him. Like any wise tactician anticipating a battle I figured a surprise attack would be the best way to overcome his objections to hiring me as a common laborer. He had a lot of reservations, but after considerable wheedling and promising he hired me, saying “Don’t expect any favors.” Time proved he meant exactly that. I was just “another hand” on the job and we didn’t socialize during what few hours we weren’t working. We worked ten hours a day, seven days a week; and it was fast-paced hard labor more akin to a Mississippi Chain Gang than anything common laborers have done within the past 50 years. But the pay was good. “Good” being $1.25 per hour with time and a half for all hours over 40 per week.
I became a “skid setter.” The skid setters job, there was one on each side of the pipeline, was to build crib-like structures which on which the pipe laid when it was welded together. We had to build the “cribs” very quickly. If we weren’t through by the time the two welders finished welding the pipe together “the boss” (my brother) had many unkind words to say to us. Skids weighed fifty to seventy pounds each. During the course of a ten hour day I lifted, threw, placed, and otherwise manhandled upwards of 1,500 skids. At fifteen I was a lean, lanky, long-legged kid. By the time I finished working that summer I was still lean, lanky and long-legged but well-muscled.
In retrospect I’m sure he thought I would last only a few days before going back home. Looking back I probably should have. I was entering not just into a “man’s world,” but into a world of men who were hard drinking, hard living men with morals they didn’t learn in Sunday School. I surprised my brother. I took my place with them, proved myself to be a good worker and stayed on until I had to return for the fall term of school. Unfortunately I was young and impressionable. Those men became role models for me. While my high school friends were enjoying a typical teen-age summer of swimming at the lake, flirting with girls and generally being teenagers I was learning to drink beer, use profanity fluently and listen to dirty jokes and ribald stories of male “conquests.” It was a life-changing summer.
There were, de facto, two classes of pipeliners. The heavy equipment operators, welders, truck drivers and bosses were “upper class.” They typically owned travel trailers which they pulled behind their pickup trucks when the Headquarters moved further along the pipeline. Most had families with them. They readily found places to park their trailers in the back yards of Montezuma’s citizens. As a common laborer I fit into the “lower class,” When we “commoners” began looking for a place to live in Montezuma we encountered the problem St. Joseph faced when he arrived in Bethlehem. In our case, though, there was not only no room in the inn , . . there was no inn. No motels, hotels, boarding houses or homes willing to rent a bedroom to the likes of us. What there was, was a large open field on the edge of town alongside the Santa Fe railroad tracks.
The men whose company I joined were uncouth and unruly, but they were creative. Many of them were veterans of WWII who had learned to rough it for weeks on end. A tent city housing a couple hundred pipeliners blossomed on that field: tents of all sizes. I bought a tent 8 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet tall, a canvas folding cot, staked my tent down, tied it to a telephone pole and settled in. That was my home for the next several weeks. It was minimalist living. There was no running water, toilet/bathing facilities and no kitchens. The railroad allowed us (or did anyone ask?) to carry water from a building next to their tracks. Later someone rigged a crude “field” shower. It was simply a barrel that someone filled with water in the morning to be heated by the sun throughout the day. We used it “first come, first served” but the accepted way to shower was to run enough water to wet our bodies, lather up with soap and then run enough water to rinse off the dirty suds. We didn’t get clean enough to satisfy a mother or girlfriend but we got the sweat and first layer of dirt off. There was no laundry in Montezuma. Laundromats were far in the future. We washed our clothes by hand. We had solved two of the basic human needs psychologists talk about. Getting food was only slightly less of a problem.
Montezuma’s only café had been established to feed the townsfolk and outlying wheat farmers when they had an occasional urge to “eat out.” The owner never envisioned having to seat and prepare breakfast, sack lunches and dinners for dozens of hard-working, hungry men seven days a week. It would seat probably 50 people. Mornings were the worst. We had to be at work at 7:00 a.m. Breakfast had to be served quickly and efficiently. We sat down ordered our breakfast, were served, ate quickly, then got up and left, all in about in about fifteen minutes. Dinners were more relaxed. We ate heartily, smoked and told the server what we wanted to be packed in our lunch sacks the next day. Those sack lunches were served to us along with breakfast. If there are any surviving Montezumans who remember that summer of 1947 I daresay they still tell stories of the pipeliner invasion.
Another business that thrived during our time in Montezuma was a small two-pump service station at the end of Main Street. We didn't increase the sale of gasoline and oil, but . . . the service station also served cold beer in the back room. Not from a bar but rather from an old-fashioned pop cooler in which cans and bottles floated in ice water. It was the only place in Montezuma that served beer. I feel sure that the owner of that business sold more beer during the pipeliner “invasion” than he had served in the entire previous year. As soon as we tent-city folks climbed off the trucks after completing our day’s labor that back room was S.R.O. before, during and after dinner. I had “tasted” beer before, but during that summer of 1947 I learned to enjoy it – or its effects. That back room was as much a classroom to me as any room in the high school of my hometown of Caney High School. What I learned in that back room had much to do with many aspects of my life over the next thirty years.
Following breakfast we reported to the company’s base which was simply a warehouse filled with all the material needed to build a pipeline. After loading whatever supplies we’d need for the day, which included a huge wooden barrel filled with ice and water, we climbed onto an Army Surplus truck and held on as the driver drove “hell for leather” to where we’d ended the day before. We were “on the clock” and the company intended to spend as little money as possible on a bunch of guys who were doing nothing except sitting on their butts in the back of a truck.
After a half hour ride jammed together on benches in the back of a truck of an Army surplus truck we arrived at the job site and quickly went to work. Within minutes a cacophony of noise began that did not end until 5:00 p.m. We worked alongside two vehicles. A Caterpillar tractor fitted with a side boom and a flatbed truck on which two welding machines were mounted. A “welding machine” was a large four cylinder engine attached to an electrical generator. They provided DC current the welders needed. The engines were noisy even when the welders weren’t actually welding the pipe. When they began welding, the engine revved up to high speed and the electrical generators began shrieking like banshees from hell. I’m pretty sure the noise level was as high as a person would experience standing next to a jet engine producing full power and it much higher in pitch. The rattling of the Caterpillar’s steel tracks, the bellowing of its unmuffled diesel engine, the shrieking of the generators, the banging of equipment and men yelling at one another created a madman's symphony of noise. At the end of a 10 hour workday our ears had been so abused that while riding home we had to yell at one another to be heard. This was 1947. OSHA didn’t exist and labor unions were not welcome on most pipeline construction jobs. If hearing protection existed we hadn't heard of it. We didn’t wear hardhats and we didn’t get "coffee breaks." What we got was 30 minutes at noon to eat lunch - period. When "nature called" we simply went off to the side of the right of way and responded as quickly as our constitution allowed. I learned to carry a wad of toilet paper in my pants pocket.
The truck that carried the welding machines also carried the wooden water barrel that we had hauled from the warehouse mounted on its front bumper. That was our drinking water for the day. There were NO disposable cups for us to drink from. There WAS a (one) metal dipper hanging by a cord off the barrel. Desperate times call for desperate measures – every one of us drank from that one dipper. To quench our thirst we would run to the barrel when there was a lull in our particular task. The pervasive question in my mind was: “Where on the rim of that dipper can I place my lips to encounter the least amount of contamination? Shall I hold the dipper with the handle straight out from my nose and drink from the outer rim or point the handle over my shoulder and drink as close to the rim as possible. I’m sure it made no difference. I don’t know if anyone ever got sick or contracted a disease from sharing our germs on the rim of that dipper. Perhaps we were hardier. I did get sick, however, from an overdose of “salt pills.” Nothing was known in those days about electrolytes our bodies need. We knew that our body exuded salt when we sweat and boy did we sweat out there on the bake oven plains of Southwestern Kansas. The company provided a large bottle of salt pills next to the water barrel but gave no instructions as to how many or how frequently to take them. I discovered on my own that they were meant to be taken sparingly. It wasa "gut-wrenching" discovery.
The crew I worked with was called “The Pipe Gang.” Our job was to weld together the 30 foot long joints of pipe that had been strewn alongside the ditch by another gang. Western Kansas land is as flat as a table-top and we were expected to weld a mile of those 30 foot joints together each day. One memorable day we did that before noon! Doing the math you will correctly deduce that we worked at a breakneck pace all day long. No coffee breaks, no time for resting, no time for idle conversation. Few guys smoked during the workday. Lots of them spent the day with a wad of chewing tobacco in their mouth. Trying to "be a man" and emulate my role models I bought a package of "Beech Nut" Chewing Tobacco. I chose Beech Nut because it was supposed to be sweet and mild tasting. In addition to discovering the consequences of taking too many salt pills, I found that carrying a wad of tobacco in my cheek without swallowing some of its juices was difficult and that my stomach wasn't programmed to deal with saliva-laden tobacco juice.
The entire business of building a pipeline was well orchestrated. It resembled an army moving forward in battle, with platoons, squads, and officers. Each "platoon" (we called them "gangs.") was responsible for a clearly defined task. Some delivered the pipe, another bent it as needed, the pipe gang welded the joints together; after which another gang treated and wrapped it to prevent corrosion after which it was buried. As a 15 year old boy I had no grasp of the logistics involved in pipeline construction, but in retrospect I have a profound respect for the “bosses” who managed this complex work.
Three things stick in my mind about that summer of 1947 when I “became a pipeliner.” First was the noise. Second was the constant, inescapable sun. The flatland of Southwestern Kansas is barren of trees excepting one or two that were near a farmhouse. Otherwise it was soil and wheat. There was nothing between us and the sun except a clear, blue, usually cloudless sky.
The man operating the “Cat” had a large umbrella set in a socket beside his seat that shaded him. The welders had an umbrella over where they were welding. The man driving the welding truck had the truck's roof for shade but the temperature inside his cab must have been at least ten or fifteen degrees hotter than the ambient temperature. The rest of us worked in the sun. We wore long trousers. Shorts for men were for “sissies.” We could take our shirts off if we dared, but I soon learned the lesson the Arabs have known for centuries. It is better to have loose fitting clothing between skin and sun. Along with the sun another weather phenomenon that was constant was the wind. It blew hot and steady across the plains. We welcomed it though because it evaporated the sweat on our bodies thereby cooling us slightly.
The third thing I remember is pain: intense pain. While the welder was welding, the Side Boom Cat held the pipe in the air. Meanwhile we skid setters rapidly stacked the skids in a crisscross pattern, building a crib for the pipe to rest upon. When the welder finished it was my job to signal the Side Boom operator to lower the pipe onto the skids, unhook from it and rush forward to pick up the next joint. We wore heavy leather work gloves to protect our hands but that protection came at a price. We couldn’t “feel things” very well with our fingers and palms. Mid-morning one day I gave the Cat Operator the signal to lower the pipe. I didn’t know that my right thumb was sandwiched between two skids UNTIL I felt the full weight of that pipe crushing it. My hand was trapped and I was feeling great pain that I couldn’t get away from. Fortunately the Side Boom operator was still watching me and saw me frantically signaling “PICK IT UP, PICK IT UP!” My thumb wasn’t stuck for more than a few seconds but when I ripped my glove off, the tip of my thumb was no thicker than the handle of a butter knife, and droplets of blood had been squeezed out of all the pores. I was sent to the nearest doctor, some 30 miles away. There wasn’t anything he could do except put a little thumb guard on it, tell me the nail was going to fall off and give me a few pain pills. I took the rest of the day off and laid in my hot tent trying to ignore the pain. I went to work the next day “favoring” my right hand a bit. Now 70 years later my right thumbnail is still “different,” noticeably flatter than my left one and its thumbnail will not grow out. It curves downward into the nail bed. A memento of a day on the pipeline.
Pipeliners had an odd expression they used when they decided to quit their job. They would say, “I’m dragging up.” I “drug up” sometime in late August to return home to begin my junior year in high school with experience behind me unlike anything my classmates had. It had changed me and not altogether for the better. I had proven myself able to work long and hard alongside grown men, but I had also learned to enjoy drinking beer and had expanded my vocabulary to include words I would never say in front of my parents. Sadly I was too immature to reject those things. In fact I was looking forward to “being a pipeliner” again the following summer.