In the “dark ages” of mid-twentieth century life was pretty much an “assume your own risk” proposition whether at work, at home, or at play. There was no OSHA, no safety requirements for toys, games, child seats, helmets and so on, and very few rules or laws dealing with personal behavior once you got below the obvious heinous crimes of murder, assault, kidnapping, etc. grand larceny and those dealing with property damage or illegal acquisition. It was a time of much greater personal freedom but it was accompanied by a great deal more responsibility for oneself than has become common in our culture. “Responsibility” and “Rights” sat on twin thrones overseeing the doings of human beings.
After reading this tale you can wonder whether or not “there shoulda been a law” to guard against such happenings. I had worked on pipeline construction every summer since 1947 but by 1952 most of the large pipelines our country needed had been welded together and buried. The day of the peripatetic pipeliner was swiftly waning. At the dawn of the summer of 1952 there were no pipelining prospects for me. My brother, who had hired me all the previous summers, was still working but he was now supervising the installation of the small pipelines that serve city and two neighborhoods. My “skills” weren’t needed. However I still needed a job for the summer.
Among other technological upgrades the oil company’s pumping stations, which had for decades been powered by house-sized diesel engines, were being replaced by stations in which the pumps that pushed oil and other products from “here” to “there” were driven by large electric motors.
About three miles east of my hometown in southeastern Kansas the Sinclair Oil Company had operated a diesel-powered pumping station for many years. When those massive diesel engines were running we town-folk, on a still night, could hear them. It was close to the sound a tympani when struck rapidly. Almost a soothing basso profundo sound. Now, in the summer of 1953, Sinclair Oil Company was joining the revolution – their massive diesel engines were to be scrapped as soon as work was completed on their new all-electric station that was being built elsewhere on their property.
Being a healthy, strapping 20 year-old young man with quite a bit of construction labor behind me I was readily hired as common laborer on the crew that was building the new station. It was mostly “grunt work” involving carrying things from place to place, digging ditches and whatever. One of the “whatevers” was the job of being the “man on the ground” serving a flat-bed truck that was rigged with “gin poles.”
This truck was used to carry things too heavy for human power to lift from place to place. The truck was equipped with a winch just behind the cab whose spool was filled with a heavy steel cable. The cable ran from the winch up to a large, heavy-duty pulley at the top of the gin poles and then down toward the ground. There was a hook on the end of the cable which I used to attach to things that needed to be picked up. The pulley itself was solid steel and probably weighed 25 to 30 pounds. “Grunt work for dummies,” right? All I had to do was grab the hook and hold it in one hand while walking along behind the truck to our destination. Being a typical hot Kansas summer I was working bare-chested and wearing only a soft cap on my head. The ground on which we were working had been churned up pretty well by the traffic of trucks and Caterpillar tractors. When the truck fitted with gin poles wallowed through one of the ruts, bumps and dips that dotted the grounds the gin poles and cable would sway like a willow in a Kansas windstorm.
One hot afternoon I was hot, tired, and bored with the work. It didn’t have what I had perceived as “the glamour” of working as a pipeliner. I was walking desultorily behind the truck, holding the cable like a hooked bass and not paying much attention to what was going on. Suddenly the truck lurched over some exceptionally rough terrain. I heard the gin poles clanking back and forth violently as the cable I was holding suddenly went slack. As I turned around to see what was happening the large pulley that had been mounted at the top of the gin poles hit the ground inches from my feet. Although it didn’t just “hit” the ground, it buried itself three or four inches into the Kansas soil. I was haunted for several days by the mental picture of what the outcome would have been and what my head would have looked like had that pulley hit me instead of the ground. I continued to work on that job for a few more weeks until it came time for me to enlist in the Army. I made very sure, though, that the rest of the time when I was serving as the ground man for that truck that I walked well outside an imaginary circle of where I thought that pulley would end up if it came loose from the truck’s gin poles again.
There were no apologies neither given nor expected as to why that heavy pulley had not been more securely attached at the top of the gin poles. It was a different day and age. I had assumed responsibility for my own safety when I took the job. I had almost paid a fatal price for not being prudent and I learned from the experience. That’s the way the world was in 1953. Freedom always comes at a price. At the mid-point of the 20th century, although we actually didn’t talk about it much, most of us were unwilling to trade “freedom” for “security.”
It's great to read more of your incredible stories Don. I missed them.
So what if the pulley hit you in the head and killed you? Would your parents feel as though you got what you deserved? It's such a delicate balance between paying the price on a "learn as you go" basis or saving the life of a good man with some logical safety training. Not everyone lives with the same degree of common sense awareness even though we'd all like to believe we do.
If properly trained and then you die, well, then I suppose you do deserve it. If not, maybe there is some responsibility elsewhere. The company? Good story and definitely thought provoking!! Welcome back!!
I'm pretty sure my parents wouldn't think I had it coming. But like many things "balance" or "moderation" is the key. Our society has becomed obsessed with safety - removing things like "jungle gyms" from playgrounds and many other pieces of playground equipt U&I used to play on. Bicycle helmets. Really? They weren't invented when I was a kid nor when our children were riding bikes. I never knew or heard of a kid being brain-damaged falling of a bike-and I took some pretty good spills. America was built by risk-takers. Both physical and financial risk. We're losing that spirit. I would never have become a pilot if I wanted to avoid all possible risk. I did crash an airplane in a snowstorm through a stupid mistake. My son and I walked away from it. I was back in another airplane - flying it, within a week. Iknew every time I lifted off the ground that I was putting my life out on a limb. One of the exceedingly rewarding things about being a pilot is that I wasin a situation where I was totally responsible for whatever happens as a consequence of my actions. It was both frightening and rewarding.
A question of balance. Given today's level of 'safety awareness' it truely is a wonder any of us survived childhood.