From the Plains to the Mountains

PREFACE:  This is the second memoir of a multi-year experience that had a definite impact on my later life.  I want to stress that I am sharing these experiences in an effort to give some testimony to the way God has worked in my life and not in any sort of braggadocio.   I fully believe the words of St. Paul when he wrote of a "thorn in his side" and heard God reply, "My grace is sufficient to you."  It was a long time coming in my life but I have ultimately seen that it has been His grace that saved me from "what could have been."   He allowed me to stumble, be hurt, and "pay the piper," but I now know He was always there and my later life is ample testimony to His lovingkindness. 

Although “Toto” was nowhere to be seen as I jumped off the gang truck that first day of my pipelining in WVA I could readily see, “We weren’t in Kansas anymore.”  Western mountaineers may scoff at the idea of calling the Eastern Mountains “mountains,” but I assure you that if they spent a couple of ten hour days climbing and descending those rugged slopes while doing heavy manual labor they would be first to call them mountains.  The terrain looked as if God had more real estate on His hands than would fit into the boundaries of WVA so he just jammed it all together, overlapping one mountain on top of another.b2ap3_thumbnail_WVA-Terrain2.jpg

This was in early June, 1948.  I had once again said “goodbye” to my parents and stepped onto a Greyhound bus with a ticket to Clendenin WVA in my hands.  I was “off to be a pipeliner again.”  My oldest brother – a career pipeliner – had set up shop in “Wild and Wonderful West Virginia.” As I had the previous summer I had, without any communication between us, audaciously assumed that he would be pleased to put me to work as a pipeline laborer.  I quickly found out, upon my arrival, this was an unfounded assumption.

At Mid-20th-Century traveling by bus on such a long trip was not a simple matter.  Greyhound once had a slogan: “Ride the bus, leave the driving to us” which conjured up images of getting on, sitting back and resting comfortably until you reached your destination.  It was an effective but wholly fabricated marketing image.  Riding the Greyhound from a small town in Kansas to an equally small one in West Virginia was NOT routine.  If General Eisenhower, patron saint of the Interstate Highway system had any dreams of such things he hadn’t told anyone.  From Kansas to WVA was a 900 mile trip on mostly two-lane highways with stops at almost every town and hamlet along the route to pick up or deliver passengers.  Busses had neither restrooms nor air conditioning.   Every few hours we would disembark long enough at one of those stops to use the bus station’s restrooms.  About the time our stomachs began growling the bus would make a longer stop so we could eat a "delicious" bus stop meal.  On such long trips passengers had to change busses several times and every change involved anywhere from an hour to several hours “layover” in the bus terminal.  It was stagecoach travel without the horses:  slightly faster and no worries about robbers or Indians, but altogether it was still an undertaking not to be taken lightly.  For a fifteen year old boy who had never been east of the Mississippi river “Getting there” truly was “half the fun.”  It was a glorious adventure which, of course reinforced my delusion that I had “arrived,” I was a man. 

In fact I had just completed my junior year in high school and my sixteenth birthday was still four months away when I boarded that bus.  Still, I had proven the previous summer that I was more than able to keep up with working men two and three times my age and I was anxious to do it again. But as for doing this in rugged, mountainous terrain; I had no idea what I was getting into.  All I heard were the Sirens of Adventure and Money singing seductively and like so many hapless sailors on the Rhine I lusted after them.

When I turned-up unexpectedly on my brother’s doorstep enthusiastically ready to go to work on the pipeline I found myself face to face with an iceberg.  Within the first few minutes after recovering from his surprise at seeing me there, he sternly said something along the lines of: “I don’t care what you thought.  You get back on that bus and go right back home!”  I found out after a little haggling that pipeline construction work in this rough, mountainous terrain was considerably more dangerous than it had been when we were racing a mile a day across the plains of Kansas.  My timing was bad:  A “Cat” operator had been killed on the job just a few days previously when the cable that had held his Cat on a steep downward slope had broken.  The machine went tumbling to the bottom of the mountain, crushing the operator in the process.  But my argumentation prevailed.  Absolving himself of all responsibility for anything terrible that happened to me while on the job he put me on the payroll.

Although the working environment was dramatically more dangerous, my living conditions were markedly better.  I’d lived in a small tent alongside a railroad track in Montezuma, Kansas the previous summer.  Clendenin, West Virginia was more accommodating.  Another of my older brothers was also working on this job as a truck driver.  He, his wife, and young son had rented a small, two-bedroom apartment from one of the “locals.”  I arranged to share the rent and moved into the second bedroom.  This had several benefits.  I had room, board, laundry, and toilet facilities.  Another “plus” that I didn’t consider as such at the time was that I was not in the company of the men with whom I worked during our few “off duty” hours.  They were the same type of hard-living, rough men I had lived with the previous summer but their influence on me came only during the ten to twelve hours I spent working with them each day – which was no small thing.

But when one vice fades into the background there's always another one waiting to take its place and that's when those small, square cubes with numbers imprinted upon them came into my life. . Our crew, or “gang” as they were properly called, included a man who was in all probability addicted to gambling – especially gambling with dice.  He drove the truck that held the welding machines.  His job was to sit and wait while the welders welded the pipe together.b2ap3_thumbnail_pipeline-welders2.jpg  That took about five minutes.  Then he would slowly drive forward thirty feet (the length of one joint of pipe) stop, sit and wait while the welders . . .  drive forward thirty feet . . . sit and wait.  For ten hours a day THAT was the sum total of his job description.  I substituted for him one day when he was absent from work.  I’ve never spent a more boring day in my life. 

But his “truck” wasn’t actually a truck.  It was a “War Surplus” Army half-track, complete with heavy steel armor for doors and roof.  b2ap3_thumbnail_Half-track.jpg  It had been modified only enough to haul two welding machines where troops had once stood.  By mid-morning the interior of that old half-track was a Dutch Oven.  Being an energetic teen-ager accustomed to activity I had to fight to stay awake.  Any more than a couple of seconds delay in moving forward after the weld was finished was sufficient cause to be roundly and profanely chastised.  To stay awake I started messing around with things in the cab of the half-track . . . mistake.   The half-track was equipped with a winch mounted just behind the driver’s compartment.  (For those who don’t know, a winch is a metal “spool” with cable wrapped around it much like a fisherman’s reel.)  There was a straight, flat piece of metal sticking up to the right of the driver’s knee.  That controlled whether the winch did nothing, reeled-cable out or reeled cable in.  Idle hands, devil’s workshop and all that came into play.  I started messing with that control, just feeling when it snapped into gear and snapped out.  My reverie was broken by an impatient yell to MOVE!  I jammed the transmission into first gear and started crawling forward.  The truck had moved forward ten feet or so when I heard another loud yell:  “STOP!”  “THE WINCH IS ABOUT TO TEAR THE BACK WELDING MACHINE OFF!” or words to that effect, rang in my ears.  In being suddenly startled I had neglected to make sure the winch was in “neutral.”  As the half-track rolled forward the winch was pulling the cable in and about to rip the rearmost welding machine off.  After suffering through a verbal assault by my brother, the “boss,” I stayed awake the rest of the day, making sure to keep my hands off anything other than the steering wheel and gearshift.  I don’t remember if the driver ever missed a day’s work again, but I was never again called upon to substitute for him.

Building a pipeline when practically every foot of pipe we joined together pointed either uphill or downhill was a horse of a very different color from what I’d experienced as a pipeliner in Western Kansas.  The pipe we were laying was 26” in diameter and came in 30 foot sections or “joints.”  Without going into detail as to why, most days my job required me to work only a foot or two from the open end of the joint that was being welded and only a few feet away from the front end of the Side Boom “Cat” that was holding the pipe in place as it was being welded.  Some of the mountainsides were so steep in places that both the “Cat” and the welding truck had to be lowered down the slope in a way very similar to the storied “Cable Cars” of San Francisco.  The details of “how it worked” aren’t relevant.  What matters is that in a sense they “dangled” at the end of a cable.  If the cable broke they would careen downhill like boulders in an avalanche.  It didn’t pay to think too much about that when working on the downhill side of all that weight, but I did from time to time wonder what the best escape route would be and being pretty sure there wasn’t any good one, I understood why my brother had been reluctant to have me working there.

“Chet,” the driver of the half-track just mentioned, introduced me to another “pastime” which could have caused great misery in my life had I not recognized the danger.  “Craps.”  Chet loved that form of gambling:  So much so that he made a portable “crap table.”  It was a piece of plywood about three feet long and 18 inches wide which he covered with a piece of tightly stretched canvas.  There were no markings on it.  He made a backstop that folded down when not in use and carried it with him when he climbed onto the gang truck every morning.  Many mornings as we rode to work he would set it up on the floor between our feet and we’d “Shoot Craps” on the way to work – on the bed of a moving truck.  I quickly came to love the adrenalin rush that comes from such fast-paced gambling and although by far the youngest person on the job I became one of the regulars at the “craps table.”  As do all gamblers I won and I lost: reveled in the winnings and told myself I’d win back what I lost “next time.”   One morning I won more money on the way to work than I would earn all day trudging up and down those steep mountainsides.  That was addictive stuff for an impressionable 15 year-old.  To twist a lyric from the musical "The Music Man." . . . "That was "Trouble, right here in West Virginia!  With a capital "T" that rhymes with "D" and that stands for DICE.

Chet took his homemade "casino" into the welding truck with him andunless something prevented it he brought it out at lunchtime and set it up on as level a piece of ground as could be found.  We “gamblers” either ate our lunch like ravenous wolves then headed for the "table" or we ate while squatting or kneeling at the craps board.  The dice were far more attractive than cold sandwiches. But our method of “Shooting Craps” was decidedly different from the version seen in Las Vegas.  I wouldn’t know how to participate in the dice game they play.  Our games, especially the noon-time ones were noisy, passion-filled and raw.  The casino version seems to be polite, detached and dispassionate. 

I became friendly with Chet.  When the time came for me to go home and finish my last year of high school Chet gave me a set of three dice.  “Three?”  “Why three, the game only calls for two;”  Chet explained, these were "loaded dice.”  One of them was a constant, the other two were cleverly weighted.  I won’t try to explain the game but simply say that by pairing one of the loaded dice with the constant you’d win more often than normal on the first roll of the dice.  Pair the other loaded die with the constant and you’d win more often than not when you failed to win on the first throw.   Chet gave the three cubes to me only as a keepsake.  He warned me to NEVER use them in a real game.  “They will get you killed if you use them” he said ominously.  I kept them for many years as a memento of my second “tour of duty” as a pipeliner.  But I never again shot craps after that.  By the grace of God I recognized that it would be so very easy for me to become addicted to tying my fate and my fortune to those dice. 

Shortly after beginning my senior year in high school I turned sixteen, but I was hardly a typical teenager.  While my classmates had memories of a summer of teenaged pursuits – going to the lake – going out on dates – hanging out at the drugstore soda fountain, working at odd jobs, service stations and the like, my memories of the past summer were of a very different sort:  gambling, working long hours, listening to and participating in seamy adult conversations.  I didn’t talk much about where I’d been and what I’d done.  I doubt they would've believed me.  It would’ve been like trying to describe hog butchering to a city dweller.  I bought a used car with money I’d saved and named her “Darling Jill.”[1]  She was an ugly duckling 1937 Plymouth sedan wearing a coat of bile green paint.  She, a trio of loaded dice, and weeks of experience unlike any my classmates had “enjoyed” accompanied me as I coasted through my last year of high school.


[1] To understand the name you’d have to read an old book by Erskine Caldwell entitled “God’s Little Acre.”  The name had connotations that no one understood.

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