Remember the first job you landed that accomplished one thing and one thing only? It was the job that illustrated, all too clearly and quickly, that you weren’t capable of doing everything you set your mind to.
It started with riding the bus from Edmonton to Pincher Creek in deep Southern Alberta. It was early June, 1961, and I’d wangled a job with a pipeline company building lines from the field to a new gas plant north of Waterton Lakes National Park. I was excited. For college students, all construction jobs were coveted for their higher pay and long hours. By today’s standards, the pay wasn’t great ($1.70 an hour) but it was better than what I would get driving a moving van in Edmonton and the hours were definitely long, as befits an operation that relies upon the weather – 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, overtime after 44 hours.
There weren’t a lot of openings for inexperienced workers on a pipeline and my job was a variation on ditch-digging. The pipeline was a fairly large one, 18-inch pipe, and large backhoes dug the ditches, roughly five feet deep and four feet across. The ditch-diggers job was to ‘pad’ the ditch. Using shovels and pick-axes, we would smooth the ditch so that the pipe could, more or less, lie evenly.
I recall little of that first night in Pincher Creek, other than an aging and grubby aluminum shack with stained mattresses flung about the floor and one slightly-used bathroom. I was the only guest. I remember no windows, the smell of oil and dust and thinking three months of this luxury might be more than I could take.
Earlier, a foreman signed me up and told me where I was expected to be at 6:00 the next morning. Someone would pick me up to drive me to work. He then offered some advice.
“You don’t want to be living in that shack the whole summer, boy. See if you can’t rent a place. Unfortunately for you, the town is swamped with construction companies right now. Six of them, I believe. So getting a place to live and getting something to eat isn’t easy. But maybe you’ll get lucky.”
I didn’t sleep much and, at six am, groggily piled into a disheveled van with 3 other men plus the driver. A mile north of town was a place called Pincher Crossing. It boasted an Esso gas station and a restaurant. We straggled in for breakfast. Apparently so had half the town. The restaurant was crammed with workmen. The driver told us to order breakfast to go, lunch, too, if we needed it. After practically tackling a harried waitress, I managed to garner a doughnut for breakfast and a roast beef sandwich and Pepsi for lunch. The bill? $2.00. My second rude shock, the first being my palatial digs.
The four of us were taken high up into the Rockies southwest of Pincher Creek and dropped in the middle of a long scar of ditch leading into more alpine heights. I found it all a bit jarring, this once-pristine mountain scene with this ugly ditch ripped into it. The contrast of wilderness beauty and the prospect of long hours of manual labour was making me queasy. We were handed 3 shovels and a pick. A D7 cat waited to take us to the worksite. Fortunately there was enough room for the four of us beside and behind the cat operator but we were left to our own devices to find something to hold onto as the cat lurched heavily down the right-of-way. This may have looked a bit like kids riding with Dad on the tractor. It wasn’t.
For the next two days, a shovel conspired with dirt to create a dozen calluses on my unsuspecting hands. Here I was in one of the prettiest places on earth spending 12 hours a day with my head down in a ditch, staring at the earth, dining on gristly roast beef sandwiches without butter or mustard, and lamenting the fragility of my hands. The work was as boring as one can imagine, and mental relief was elusive. School, girlfriends, and friends seem impossibly far away. Perhaps because they were. Partial escape came whenever a foreman drove by to tell us to a) work harder/faster/better or b) what a nice job we were doing. Thanks to this fatuous commentary, my mind could wander briefly to contemplate the merits of burying a shovel in his skull.
My loathing for the job is tempered on the second day when one of my co-workers, an older man, gave me the name of another welder who might rent me a room, or at least a bed and his wife might even provide me with a hot breakfast and lunch. That second night, I tracked down a vintage trailer and am given an upper bunk in a second bedroom. I share the room and a bathroom with an older welder. I feel I’ve returned to civilization and take a long, long shower.
The next morning, the wife prepares a hot breakfast, oatmeal and toast, an act that would forever place me in the camp of those favoring living with a good woman. And a lunch. With fresh bread. And butter and mustard. I am fawningly grateful.
With decent food and a comfortable bed, work becomes considerably more tolerable but more adversity is never far away. The older man – he’s probably 45 but to a 20-year-old, he’s ready for retirement – takes pity on my painful grappling with the shovel.
‘You know,’ he says, careful that the other two do not hear, ‘when those foremen who come by want to find someone to promote, they look for the guy using the pick. I guess they figure he’s the hardest worker. Just telling you . . . .’
‘If that’s true,’ I reply, ‘Why don’t you use it?’
‘I like padding ditches. It’s what I do.’
Obviously the man’s lofty ambition was to be applauded but I had to gather myself to wheedle the pick out of one of my ‘ditch associates’ hands and test the theory. Wheedling was minimal, my associate concluding I was even dumber than he for wanting to use this instrument of torture. He smiled at the prospect of a day with just the shovel.
IF those foremen bastards DO pick the guy using the pick, they’re right about the user being the hardest worker. Shoulder muscles I never knew I had start screaming for respite. My lower back feels like someone kicked me. Within hours, I am whining. Sweet Jesus, how long can I keep this up?
Will we run out of ditch before someone notices me? Not bloody likely. There’s something hugely discouraging after spending 12 hours pampering 2 or 3 hundred yards of a slash in the earth to look up and see 3 more miles of the same. Sisyphus had it easy.
Just as I was preparing to hurl the pick at a nearby grazing whitetail doe, a pickup truck bounces down the right of way and stops at our work site.
A man jumps out and points at me. ‘Hey kid, get up here.’
I can tell he is impressed by the speed with which I drop the pick and vault out of the ditch.
‘You ever been an oiler on a backhoe?’
I had a rep for quick thinking but this question nailed me. ‘Uh, no, I don’t think so,’ I stammered.
He stared at me. Shit, I thought. Was this it? One question? Wrong answer? Don’t you know what an oiler on a backhoe is? After too long a time, he growled ‘Well, no problem, I guess. Jump in.’
Much later, I would remember that fateful qualifier, ‘I guess’.
The next day, I was picked up by Ed the backhoe operator in his new Ford ¾ ton. We weren’t formally introduced. Ed simply pointed to the passenger door.
‘My name is Ed. I operate the backhoe you’re gonna be working on. You do what I tell ya, when I tell ya. Got it? That’s all you gotta remember. What I tell ya, when I tell ya. What’s your name?’
‘Bob. That’s fuckin’ original. This a summer job or you lookin’ for a career?’
‘Summer. I’m going into my 3rd year university. I – ‘
‘Fuckin’ lovely. A college kid. ‘ He slid the ¾ ton around a tight corner with unseemly haste, I thought. ‘Well, college kid, this isn’t the classroom. Didja bring your gloves? You got a problem with dark small spaces? Understand you can’t bend a piece of pipe twice?’
I mmm’ed my way through it. It’d all become clear soon enough.
‘Ya won’t mind if I call you stupid instead of Bob, will ya?’
“Well, actually I’d mind a lot.’
‘Well, actually, get fuckin’ used to it.’
And so it began. Me and Ed. Team Backhoe. To borrow a phrase unheard of in 1961, Ed had ‘issues’. Being the easy-going kid I was, I usually explored ways to make friends with new acquaintances, but something about Ed’s seething style told me to not waste my time.
Oiler on a backhoe. The job paid 15 cents an hour more than padding the ditch and sounded easy; keep the backhoe greased, replace teeth in the bucket when required, set pegs in a straight line to show the operator where to dig, lay out large wooden mats when the ground got too soggy for the backhoe. I was up for this.
The backhoe was a large Bucyrus Erie with a 30-inch bucket and six ‘teeth’. These teeth were attached by a cotter pin to six shanks fixed on the bucket. The teeth wore down irregularly and it was my job to remove the cotter pin, replace the worn tooth with a new one and re-attach the cotter pin.
The backhoe worked on a pipeline right of way prepared by D8 cats. A 50-foot wide swath of mountain forest was cleared of all trees and leveled. When we showed up for work in the morning, our first glance was to the seemingly endless swath of roadbed stretching off into the mountains.
My first task in the morning, after listening to Ed bitch about his job for the 30 minute drive to the job site, was to place the wooden pegs that gave him his guide for digging. The rules were; a straight line, set the pegs as close to the middle of the right of way as possible and when you come to a bend make sure you set the pegs so the pipe has to bend only once.
Then I had to grease the backhoe. This is what Ed meant when he said something about being afraid of small dark spaces. Three times a day, I had to crawl underneath that backhoe. Carrying a grease gun I had to put fresh grease in 6 nipples, 3 on each track. I didn’t think it would bother me at first, probably because I didn’t think much about it at all, but this was dicey work, crawling on your belly underneath a 20-ton piece of equipment and hoping that soft mud wasn’t masquerading as hard ground.
As the backhoe edged its way down the right-of-way, it dragged two large wooden rafts behind it – the mats. Whenever the ground got too soft, the backhoe would reach back and grab those mats and throw them on the ground in front. It was my job to place them so the tracks could climb aboard and keep the backhoe from sinking into the mud. This wasn’t a hard job but Ed usually found something wrong with the way I did it. Fact was, Ed didn’t much like anything I did – or me, for that matter.
But his special venom was saved for my inability to set the pegs on a curve.
‘How many fuckin’ times to I have to tell ya, ya can’t bend a pipe twice. Jesus, will you look at that?’ He’d point to my peg layout and even to me it was obvious the pipe would have to bend twice. Why did I not see that? I think I was just following the right of way curve, instead of thinking how the pipe might actually change directions.
Everybody makes mistakes, right? Unfortunately, I made this mistake not once, not twice, but three times, and each time Ed’s vitriol got worse.
‘Dumb fuckin’ college kids,’ was his favorite.
If 12 hours of slugging it out at the backhoe wasn’t painful enough, the ride out at night was terrifying. We quit work at 7 at a spot inaccessible to anything but another track vehicle, a tow cat, so named for its job of, well, towing things around. Ed, naturally, got to sit with the operator. I, along with any other hitch-hiking workers had to ride on the front bumper. And hold on by gripping the radiator cap. Everyone was in a hurry to get home so the cat operator pushed that mechanical monster as hard as he could. This lead to some roller coaster rides over rough terrain where one slip could cost a man his life. Evidently, no one but those of us who were forced to ride that way gave this extreme peril a second thought. Like the Comanchero observed in ‘Lonesome Dove’, ‘Life is cheap up here on the Canadian.’ After what seemed an eternity, we huffed our way into the drop-off spot. Prying my frozen fingers from the radiator cap, I dismounted the tow cat. My fingers asked me how many more times I was going to make them save my life. Another 30 minute Ed-bitching ride to town was still ahead of me.
I was beginning to wonder how much longer I could stay employed. The money was great but at what cost. Would he have me fired? Would I quit?
The problem resolved itself about two weeks after I became an oiler. I was moving a mat and hooking up a cable to the bucket when a sliver of loose cable pierced my middle finger at its base. It was nothing but a pinprick. I had gloves on and didn’t even stop to look.
The next morning my entire right arm was swollen. The foreman took one look and ordered me to the hospital in Pincher Creek. Blood poisoning.
I was in that small hospital for a week. I should have been hospitalized for guilt, feeling ecstatic at being given a break from work, being fed three meals a day, sleeping in a clean bed while fretting about my need to make enough money for year four at college. When I finally went back to work, there was no work. The oiler job was gone. So were the ditch jobs. Part of me was relieved and I’m sure Ed was happier. Back to driving the moving van.
I left those beautiful mountains the next day.
And crossed ‘backhoe oiler’ off my list of things I would do – or could do – for money.