My father died on the monkey board of a drilling rig in Dawson County, near Lamesa, Texas, almost 50 years ago.
He was the victim of an accident that happened when some wire rope got loose on the floor of the rig and hit him across his upper thighs, leaving him with huge bruises. He refused to see a doctor for several days, going only when he began to have excruciating pain.
The physician he saw prescribed blood thinners to break up the bruises and a mild analgesic and Daddy went on to work. He worked several days before the blood thinner caused a clot to break loose, travel to his heart and kill him.
After we could see him, all dressed up in his brown suit, white shirt and tan and brown striped tie, the funeral director kept apologizing because he hadn’t been able to get Daddy’s hands as clean as he wanted.
“The grease was just too deeply imbedded in the pores and the wrinkles on his hands to get it out without damaging his skin,” the man said. “I did the best I could, but it just wouldn’t come out.”
That would have bothered Daddy. He was known all over the oilfield, where he worked as the derrick man on hundreds of rigs over a period of almost 40 years, as Mr. Clean.
Both he and his clothes were immaculately clean every day when he left for whatever rig he was working on. He carried clean work clothes every day, work clothes that he took to the washateria himself. In those days, there was a section that had a couple of boiling vats men could use to get the oil out of their work clothes.
Daddy insisted on washing his own work clothes and then hanging them on the clothesline himself when he got them home.
For years we had a dog named Little Feller who pulled Daddy’s clothes off the line when he could reach them. Daddy was never angry with the dog about this, perhaps because when Daddy got his clothes in the duffel bag and ready to go, he could lay the duffel bag in the front yard without worrying that it would disappear.
Little Feller let no one, not me, not Mama, not my brother, or anyone else near that bag. We used to try to distract the dog while one of us put a foot on the bag. He was always on us like a shot. I don’t think he would have bitten a family member, but I believe he might have torn the arm off a stranger who tried to take the bag. Daddy thought Little Feller was the best dog we ever had.
As part of his cleanliness rituals, Daddy kept his already nearly bald head shaved and his fingernails clean. But there was nothing he could do, no matter how much pumice stone he used, about the grease that got into the creases and pores and stained the calluses on his hands.
For me, Daddy’s hands were a badge of honor that identified him as a hard-working man who put his obligations to his family first and everything else second. He frequently worked more than 450 work days a year, “pulling doubles” when someone failed to show up on the job.
Daddy’s hands could do just about anything. They could change a tire, put new brakes on the car, frame a building, rewire an electrical outlet, smooth concrete and lay sewer line.
Laying sewer line got him arrested one Sunday morning while the rest of us were in church.
We lived on the south side of Odessa, definitely on the wrong side of the tracks, in a house that had a septic tank. After WWII, the city decided to lay sewer lines along all the existing alleys. We were excited to finally have a chance to get hooked up to the sewer.
Daddy got the materials together, dug the ditch to the proper depth and laid the pipe out, putting it together according to regulation. He knew it was done right because the city inspector came to check it out.
It was the city inspector who was the problem. Once Daddy had the sewer pipe all the way to the alley, it had to be tied into the city’s sewer line.
Despite repeated calls, the inspector would not come, and Daddy, tired of waiting after nearly a week, went ahead and tied into the city’s sewer line that Sunday morning.
By the time we got home from church, the phone was ringing and Daddy was telling us to get bond money so he could get out of jail in time to go to work.
None of us ever knew how city officials found out Daddy had tied into the sewer on a Sunday morning and I suppose it didn’t matter because the judge dismissed the charges on Monday. Daddy covered up the ditch and eventually the city covered the ditch in the alley.
Daddy could do more than hard work with his hands. One of my favorite memories involves a puppy that had colic. Daddy got the hot water bottle — everybody had a hot water bottle in those days — filled it with hot water, wrapped it up in a thick, soft towel, put the puppy on the hot towel and walked and sang to the puppy until he got easy.
Daddy may have been singing the aria from “The Barber of Seville,” or it may have been from “Pagliacci.” None of us knew where he learned them, but he loved them both.
He also loved “Deep Purple,” a popular song from the 1930’s and we often could hear him singing it when he showered after getting home from the rig.
Two years before he died, Daddy bought bath towels, big, soft, fluffy, towels in different colors. He had never showed the slightest interest in buying towels before and had seemed perfectly content to use the always white towels that Mama kept snowy with bleach.
He didn’t use the towels he bought. Mama put them in the linen closet so he could get to them easily, but he didn’t touch them. None of us did either, referring to them as “Daddy’s towels.”
About three months before he died, Daddy began using his towels. That he did use them was one of the things that comforted us when he died.
Life didn’t turn out for Daddy the way he planned. He got a work study-baseball scholarship to Texas Tech, which was a very new school at the time he graduated from high school. He was doing well until a male math professor propositioned him and left no doubt that there would be negative consequences if Daddy didn’t comply.
In those days there was no one to whom a student could complain about that kind of thing and since people tend to blame the victim of a sexual predator, most victims wouldn’t have reported it anyway. Daddy packed his bags and went home.
He never told me about this experience. Mama told me after Daddy died. It’s not too much for me to hope that professor woke up in hell for what he did, because what he did was to deny Daddy the opportunity to have a job that would have allowed him to die with smooth, unstained hands.
It never occurred to me that anyone would think of my father or his family as “oilfield trash,” a pejorative term that still offends me to the core of my soul.
My Daddy was as solid as rock, holding his place and places for Mama, my brother and me against all the forces that might have destroyed us.
He left us with two paid-for houses, three paid-for cars, whatever his life insurance paid and enough cash in the bank to pay the bills for a while.
Those were the tangibles.
There are too many intangibles to list, too many important lessons taught, too many values absorbed to explain.
Daddy’s hands — for me and my family — were the symbols of decency and dedication to the things that are eternal.