Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How I First "Lost My Cool" in Kansas
by Michael Caddell, yer curmudgeon country pulisher

My first "real" summer job fresh from graduation out of LeRoy High School was working a pulling rig for a wildcat oil man out of Yates Center. A pulling rig is a dirt and oil encrusted truck with a diesel powered wench platform on the back.

It resembled a large modern day tow truck, except it had a much taller boom to pull the pipe casings up joint by joint out of the drilled well head. A fellow graduate, let's call him "Bob" found the contract owner, an old guy who went by the name of Chet (pronounced "Chit" as in "shit) who was looking for two roustabouts to crew the portable truck rig.

We hunted Chet down, volunteered for the job, despite his warnings and rented a flop room up above the last grocery store on Main Street, LeRoy, Ks. Unable to find lava lamps within a radius of thirty miles around the remote rustic village, we settled for "black light" posters, scratchy LP vinyl albums of Iron Butterfly, Credence Clearwater Revival and Jimi Hendrix.

The "apartment" was really just one large room with a filthy ancient bathroom down the hall. The landlord enjoyed the $75 a month, and we had visions of turning the room into a premium bachelor pad, to entice the local girls into lust-filled nights of cheap Mexican weed and 3.2% cowboy Kool-aid. A meager but possible bountiful endeavor, by LeRoy standards.

We slept on two thread worn couches on opposite ends of the big room and cooked on a hot plate canned beans, canned beef stew, anything our respective families would donate. There wasn't a refrigerator. We bought, stole or picked any vegetables to be had around the town's many gardens.

Bob and I went back several summers, hauling hay for local big shot farmers' kids. The big shot farmers' kids were mainly an arrogant bunch of bullies who knew everything about farm implements, tractors, combines and trucks, but little else.

They liked us because we grudgingly accepted their physical and financial superiority, haggled over the pennies per bale paid, and discussed nebulous subjects like the ending war in Vietnam, the counter culture and how many girls liked freaks and hippies.

Their main recreational sport was drinking beer and marveling us townies with tall tales of the financial power of their clans. They knew how to work both hard and smart around their families, but less hard and more smart around us. After all, they were paying us a big cut of what their fathers were paying them. It was capitalism, pure harmless and simple because everybody knew who was making how much, and for what kind of work.

Paid in pennies per bale loaded from the fields and unloaded into the dusty hot barns, we enjoyed the work.

Hay hauling days began at early dawn when it was cool, traveling to the scattered fields across the meadows to pick-up the 50 - 75lb. bales from the field, or if we were lucky a chain driven "cherry popper" allowed us to stand on the wagon bed, grab the lifted bales and stack them. Walking alongside the wagon, throwing the bales up to the stacker was the hardest, so when a cherry popper was available the work went fast and easy.

According to the temperature, from June on, the whole crew took off somewhere between 11am to early afternoon by consensus. Arguments would break out, insults, etc. but inevitably we quit as the heat started, somewhere around lunch time and traveled to a remote bar, some ten or so miles away along the Neosho River to shoot pool, drink cheap beer and nap under the shade trees.

None of us were 18 years of age, but the lady who ran the bar didn't care; the lunch money she made kept her happy. We rarely went back out into the fields, saving the last load of the day for the barn, then back to town in the evening. Sometimes one of us would plunge a hay hook into our legs, but other than that it was a careless and pretty healthy life, as far as child labor went.

None of us used air conditioning and most of our homes never ran it until the hottest part of August and September and then usually only at night for sleep. My grandmother told us stories of sleeping in the city park, or on the big porch in the glider. Air conditioning was a real luxury.

All that changed with Chet and the pulling rig on our first summer out of high school.

A long hot summer above Main Street that I will never forget, or forgive. It was my first lesson in true wage slavery.

Paid less than two dollars an hour and nothing else, the job began at dawn and went on through the hot hours, sometimes running into the late night. Chet "the shit" hated to stop the pulling rig once we started fishin' the casings out, he greatly feared dropping them back into the well, a financial disaster for him. We had to keep pulling joint by joint until the thousands of feet were up and piled on the ground.

Chet "the shit" was no fat pig capitalist. He was a professed "wildcatter" from the Texas oil fields. Prideful of his early days in Texas he would revel us with stories of whore houses, oil boom towns and his adventures from Texas, up through Oklahoma and all the way up to the "East Rose Project" as he called the fields we worked.

Bob and I gave up on washing our work clothes after the first week. Chet "the shit" told us to just buy a pair every month or so, "when they start to stand up on their own" and wear the same ones, day in and day out, oil soaked and stinking from our sweat. The hotter it got during the day the more we smelt like oil, but the clothes did loosen up and not chaff your gonads and arm pits as much.

It was impossible to avoid getting oil on you, when you first broke into a well the oil and natural gas would burst out and the unlucky guy standing over the well with the wrenches in each hand had to take that first bath. Once the casings start coming up, then the work became more numbing, predictable with each link being pulled up, each joint physically broke with a pair of wrenches. We'd pile the casings up alongside the truck in neat piles with boards between each layer black oil spilling out on the ground everywhere, but not on us.

Kansas oil in 1974 - 75, at least in the fields we worked at was thick and black, more like tar, and really only fit to work around in the heated days of Spring to late Summer when it was "thin" as Chet said.

Other than a camp shower we built in the bath tub at our "bachelor's pad" there was no air conditioning.

Bob and I each having junk cars would drive down to the shaded banks of the Neosho and sleep many nights where it was cool and usually private. We gave up on the social life with girls and boys that summer, most hated was the smell of the oil in our skin and even our evening clothes after baths.

I "lost my cool" for the system of wage slavery after that hot oil-stinking summer and hunted for a way out of it ever since.

Welcome Stan Cox on Radio Free Kansas this Saturday High Noon (CDT) for a free ranging talk and most importantly "Losing Our Cool."

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