First Snowfall & Reality Sinks In~
I stayed a couple of nights at Duffy's house in the forest near Breckenridge, practicing with their band in the evenings, dreaming of future fame and trying to cook a pot of pinto beans during the day that just never would get done at that high altitude before I began feeling guilty about freeloading off of Duffy. He never said a word about it but I could hear my parents talking in my head telling me I shouldn't be such a moocher. Hearing about a possible job opportunity at a lumberyard in Frisco, I walked the 9.6 miles over from Breckenridge (local police did not allow hitchhiking at all) to apply and got the job, a hotel room and some canned foods using the last of the twenty dollars Ricky had given me and settled into working days at the lumberyard and practicing music in the evenings. The weather remained mild for several days and I was enjoying my new life.
Then one night just after sunset, I went down from my room to go to the little grocery store just across the street from the Pine Cone Lodge to buy some more food and walked out into the most beautiful snowfall I had ever seen in my life. I had enjoyed snow at the pig farm in Illinois and in Tehran but this snow was unique and delightful in my experience. There was no wind and fat snowflakes the size of quarters were gently falling from a starless night sky. I stood on the sidewalk outside the hotel just staring at it. It wasn't very cold as the snow began falling but by morning it had piled deep, the clouds had cleared away sometime in the night and the early morning air was frigid as I walked to work, shivering. I had no good coat to wear to work and the reality of my tenuous situation finally began to sink in. I was not prepared for winter in the Rockies.
Defeat, Shame & Forgiveness~
I called my grandparents and told them where I was and was sorry I ran away and could I come back and finish high school. They told me without hesitation to stay where I was and that they would be there as quickly as they could get to Frisco to bring me home. The proprietors of the Pine Cone Lodge had enjoyed my banjo playing and seemed sorry to see me go, pointedly telling my grandparents we were all welcome to come back any time. Shrouded in deep shame during the long drive back to Sayre and for months after returning, I was warmly welcomed home but sternly advised at school that there was a large amount of makeup work I had to complete with good grades if I wanted earn the credits to graduate on schedule with my class of 60 fellow students who were all on track to finish in May.
Doing the makeup homework and keeping up with the rest of school work wasn't as difficult as I had feared it would be and my teachers and classmates harbored little if any ill will toward me for running away. Ricky grew restless and tried it too but returned not long after leaving to finish school as well. The Williams family were happy to have me back but I felt bad about Ricky leaving, feeling responsible for planting the itch-to-go seed in him. Gary and his family didn't seem to blame me, though, and he and I picked up where we left off musically while his parents welcomed me into their home every single time I stopped by to visit, frequently inviting me to stay for meals (Betty's spaghetti sauce was a dish I dreamed of a lot).
The compassion and understanding of everyone at that embarrassing and shameful time of life was as humbling as it was healing. But I still had a wildness stirring and everyone could sense it. I wasn't drinking or doing drugs or anything horribly bad, I was just not doing much more than absolutely necessary to advance positively in life. Just drifting along without much purpose. I thought of Jimmy and how he had stuck with it, never returning and wondered if I ever would develop that resolute strength of will.
When my parents and brothers returned from Tehran that spring, Mom and Dad weren't overly angry at me for pulling such a foolish stunt. They were glad I survived without harm and informed me we were moving back to Texas for the third time in my life, so off we went to a new home nestled in mesquite-blanketed north Texas. A few days after settling into our new home, Dad came into my bedroom and brusquely handed me a brand new pair of heavy cotton work gloves, drove me out to a drilling rig operating just outside of town and handed me over to the tool pusher. He greeted me with a huge smile and gleam in his eyes. He winked at my father and pointed up at the pipe standing in the rig tower.
"This is your lucky day, son. You get to learn all about being a floor hand fast tripping all that pipe back down hole today." Then he and Dad laughed heartily together at their private joke. At the end of my shift I didn't feel like laughing at all.
I learned fast, quickly became conditioned to the hard, dangerous labor on and around the rig and worked hard at it all summer on several drill sites throwing slips, running backup tongs, repairing broken turntable drive chains and mud pumps, tearing down, moving, assembling and washing the rig as our young crew drilled several producing shallow wells exploring for natural gas across the rocky hills, draws and low mesa tops of north Texas. I kept practicing music during my off hours when I wasn't zonked out from exhaustion, never losing interest in that at all and even enjoying the hard work and high pay. But one day we lost our chainhand and I was instructed by our driller to take over his job. I struggled at it all day as we tripped a logging tool string down hole and back out and nearly lost two of my fingers trying to learn to safely throw the chain. That night I lay in bed wondering if I could return to the rig and risk getting fingers crushed or yanked off and decided I damned well couldn't.
So I resigned my job on the rig and left north Texas, headed back to Sayre to seek safer work near friends I sorely missed, wondering if Jimmy had been encountering such vexing problems learning to work and survive in the world as an adult. I supposed he had but had more courage and stamina than I did and tried to justify my choice to abruptly leave a good-paying job by telling myself I was doing it as a simple matter of self-preservation for working at what I loved most. I wasn't about to risk maiming the hands I needed to play the musical instruments I loved to play.
Hayfever, Ice & Spraying Offal ~
Upon returning to Sayre, I rented one half of a shotgun-shack duplex in town a few blocks off of Route 66 and a classmate of my father hired me to help sack grain and feed at his grain elevator downtown. Artie Puckett asked me during the interview if I had any problems with hay fever, but I foolishly lied to get the job. I didn't want to run out of money and have to return home with tail between my legs again. A few days later I had to quit that job because I was having too much trouble breathing in the chaff-saturated air of the elevator environment. I apologized to Artie who kindly accepted my resignation without argument and I went on to search for another job. Joe Brickell hired me the next day to help crush ice and bone scrap meat at his family-operated ice and locker business on the west side of town. It was safe work as long as I was careful where I put my hands while feeding blocks of ice into the crusher and careful with the knives while boning meat to throw into the grinder. Nothing so dangerous as throwing chain on a drilling rig.
Ricky was working there too slaughtering livestock and crushing ice. Joe soon paired us up and Ricky began teaching me the fine art of slaughtering cattle and hogs. Always an avid prankster, he set me up gutting steers and emptying offal into fifty five gallon barrels which we later hauled out of town to dump at nearby farms for use as crop fertilizer. On the first offal-emptying lesson, Ricky carefully positioned me at the barrel, showed me how to ease the guts out of the animal over the lip of the barrel and instructed me to make my cut on the top side of the gut. I did just as he instructed and it instantly sprayed its contents directly up in my face. I didn't have time to duck out of the way. I could only utter a stifled "Umph!" before being drenched.
The gut of a steer holds a lot of partially digested grass. A whole lot. The front, upper half of my body from head to belt was thoroughly coated in the stinky stuff and it was almost disgusting enough to make me hurl on the spot, but I somehow managed to hold down my gorge, refusing to give Ricky that advanced level of satisfaction. I couldn't help but laugh along with him at how skillfully he set me up for the prank and I learned in a single lesson to always be very careful to make the slit on the bottom side of the gut so its contents always squirted down into the barrel from then on.
I was thoroughly enjoying work at Brickell's Ice & Locker and making fair pay doing it. I felt like I was finally growing up. After a year of working there, I decided to see if I could pass the ACT to get into college and did. So I resigned and began taking basic courses at a nearby state university. Basic college course work was almost as boring as high school classwork but I managed to knock out every course except Algebra. I was smoking a lot of weed then and discovered weed and mathematics are not at all compatible. Biology, history, government and even chemistry I handled okay, but mathematics was just too much for my weed-addled mind to cope with. I finished another semester of non-math courses and then returned to the manual-labor life in the oil fields of Texas for a while before taking another stab at college to become a professional performing musician.
Bach, Mompou & No Trip To Spain ~
In music school I flourished in performance classical guitar classes. After the first-semester introductory group class (which I took playing my mother's old, very worn, 1964 Sears Silvertone classical guitar), I auditioned for and was advanced to private lessons with a young instructor who had already earned a Doctorate in classical guitar. At that summer semester audition with Michael Craddock, he took one look at the Silvertone guitar before I played a single note and summarily informed me I would have to get a better guitar to continue lessons with him. Then I played my audition pieces and impressed him enough playing on it that I was accepted into the performance program. A hundred dollars poorer I returned for my first lesson with a much better guitar purchased from a classical guitar dropout living in Bruce Hall who was desperate for cash, and eagerly began learning to play baroque compositions by Bach arranged for classical guitar.
I loved performance guitar and did okay in music theory but sucked in music history. Along with the music courses I wrapped up all of the basic coursework and a good portion of advanced liberal arts courses in literature and poetry as well. After my second semester of private instruction with Michael I aced my final performance jury and he invited me to go to Spain for a summer session studying under Andrés Segovia, but I couldn't afford the $1500 fee for travel and living expenses. I left college again to enter the manual labor workforce, took welding courses and began working in steel structure construction as a weldor. I kept playing banjo and guitar, still striving to break into the business to make a living doing that full time. I stayed in touch with the Williams family in Sayre and every now and again wondered if Jimmy still played guitar like Gary and I still did, and if he was, where he did his playing and how good he was at it now.
Possum Kingdom & Computers ~
I landed a job building and repairing boat docks on Possum Kingdom Lake for just over a year and loved the work but the pay sucked. Being out on the lake almost every day of the workweek was fun and I learned a lot on top of getting a killer tan. A couple of canoe trips on the Brazos River while working at Possum Kingdom instilled a strong desire to begin long-distance canoeing for sport, but it was a few years later before I finally got into that. In the meantime I tried my hand as a machinist for a few months before finally returning to college pursuing a degree in civil engineering. Advanced math and engineering were hard to grasp at first but things began to click in my brain on such subject matter and I was making good progress.
Before returning to college, Dad had introduced all of his sons to the joys of computer programming using wonderfully designed and engineered hand-held computers made by Hewlett Packard. He had written blowout control software to run on them and was using it for drilling well control operations running his own lucrative consulting business in Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela. So we all began learning to program the HP-41 while hammering away on our engineering coursework. My sister had already earned a degree in Geophysics and was out in the world making good money. My youngest bother was wrapping up his study in Aerospace Engineering and my middle brother was well on his way to earning a degree in Electrical Engineering. It was clear they were going to do well out in the professional world. I realized I needed to shift my stubborn butt into high gear if I was going to finally earn a degree in a profession I could actually make good money working at. I loved music performance but it paid diddly squat if you weren't superstar material and I had pretty much determined I was not.
Then personal computers started popping up on the market. The Apple, the IBM PC, the Commadore 64 and more. The rapid churn and advances in computer technology surged by the month. I got my hands on an IBM PC and fell hard for computer programming. Hard enough to switch my major to computer science and mathematics and finally earned a degree I could head out into the world with to begin making a good living as a real-life professional. I was feeling fantastic about the future and landed a job writing software for money two months after graduation. On my first vacation I returned to Sayre to visit the Williams family and share the good news that I had finally straightened up and made the leap into adulthood.
That's when I found out Betty and Winston both had cancer. Jimmy still had not returned. Ricky, Gary and Sherry were very likely about to lose their parents. A loving, devoted mother and father like second parents of my own.