Sunday, April 6, 2008
The Worst Day of My Life
The worst day of my life started out normal. The year was 1968, the month was August, and I don't remember the day of the month, but for the sake of this story we are going to call it the 23rd. Yes, I am pretty sure it was August 23rd, 1968.
August 23rd, 1968 started out like any other day for me. My mom woke me up at 6:00 AM, like every other morning. School started at 8:00 AM, and I had to get up, get ready, have breakfast, and get my chores done before school started. I grew up on a ranch, but it was not like I had to go out and milk the cows or anything like that. I had to take the dog out and I had to feed the 16 cats that lived on the roof on top of our garage. Why did we have 16 cats living on the roof of our garage you ask? Well, that is the topic of a story for another day. I also had to take the trash out, and burn it. Living in the country we did not have trash service. So, we had a barrel about 50 feet behind our house. I had to take the trash out, sort through it and remove any spray cans, put the trash in the barrel, and then light it on fire. I had to take the spray cans out because if I burned trash with spray cans in it, the spray cans would heat up, explode, and then that would blow burning trash out of the barrel, starting a range fire. Yes, my care and diligence in this job was the one thing that stood between my family and a major grass fire. I took the responsibility seriously. On this particular day, I found two spray cans, removed them from the trash and started the remainder of the trash on fire in the barrel. I put the matches in my pocket, and ran and got in my dad's little green Volkswagen, as he was ready to drive us to school.
Now the school I went to was pretty small. There were about 11 kids in my grade. You knew everyone, and everyone was pretty much friends. Kids were not allowed to just hang out after school. You had to coordinate whatever you were going to do with your parents. Typically one kid would invite another kid to come over and play after school. So, on this day, I invited my friend David to come over after school. He got the OK from his parents, I got the OK from my parents, so things were all set.
My dad was there right on time to pick David and me up after school. When David and I got to our house, we played a few card games, and then decided to go out "exploring". To go exploring meant you started walking, and just let things unfold as they would. Living on a ranch, if you just started walking, you would eventually happen upon something interesting. On this day, we started walking down the caliche road in front of the house. After walking about a half mile, we got to the cattle guard at the edge of our property. At this point, we were at a larger caliche road called the Will Davis road. If we turned left, we would end up back at town, which was about a half mile away. If we turned right we would be walking away from town. We decided to turn right. David had a good walking stick, and was up for a longer walk.
After we had walked about a quarter mile down the Will Davis road, we suddenly froze as the quiet of our walk was shattered by the unmistakable buzz of a huge rattlesnake. Growing up in the country, we knew the first thing to do when confronted by a snake was to stand perfectly still. We froze in our tracks, and then about 4 foot away spotted a huge six foot diamond back rattlesnake. The snake was in the barrow ditch by the side of the road, and near some tall grass. We realized that the snake had to be killed, and that if the snake crawled into the tall grass, we would never be able to find him. We put together a quick plan. David would keep the snake occupied, while I found a suitable rock to dispatch the snake with. David began poking and prodding the snake with his walking stick, as I searched for a rock. Selection of the suitable rock was critical. If too small, It would not kill the snake. If too large, I would not be able to lift and properly throw it. I needed something about the size of a bowling ball. After a few moments, I spotted the perfect rock. I picked it up, and headed back towards the snake. Judging the snake to be about six foot long, and knowing that a snake can strike about half its length, I positioned myself about 3 and a half feet away from the snake. I elevated the rock above my head, and David stepped back out of the way. Now, just as I was about to the launch that huge bolder onto the snake, I heard a voice from behind me say, "Stop . . . . Stop, that is no way to kill a snake." I was somewhat startled, as I was not aware any one else was around. I paused, turned around, and I saw that in the excitement of looking for the rock, I had not noticed that a 5,000 gallon butane truck had pulled up. The butane truck driver had gotten out, and walked up behind me. He was the one telling me to not throw the rock onto the snake. I paused there by the snake, but left the rock elevated above my head. The butane truck driver then said, "You can smash that snake with that rock, or we can freeze him like a block of ice. Now you found the snake, so it is your call."
Now at 7 years old, I had never had an adult tell me that anything was my call, much less something as important as how to dispatch this snake. It was a very important matter, and I was feeling pretty good about myself to be in charge of such a lofty matter. Well, I wanted to learn more, so asked him how he would propose to freeze the snake. He told us that the butane in his truck was liquefied, and if he were to spray the snake with the butane, as the butane left the end of the hose, it would expand, become super-cooled, and would instantaneously freeze the snake like a block of ice. I was sold, and gave him the go ahead. I went ahead and put the rock down, and David started tending the snake with his stick again, making sure we did not lose the snake in the grass as the butane man turned his truck around and got it into position in the barrow ditch. Now, at this point I noticed that several additional cars were pulling up to see what was going on. Among those pulling up was Goya, a Mexican Lady that lived on our ranch. She was a sweet lady, and we loved her dearly. She was an extra large woman, weighing in at over 200 pounds. I was happy to see more people coming up, as I was in charge of this operation, and my biggest fear had become that some incredible things were going to happen, and I would not have any witnesses. I wanted to make sure when I told the story the next day at school, that I had lots of witnesses, in case any one challenged me. So, I welcomed the small crowd that was gathering at the scene.
Now, back to the snake. David had effectively kept the snake out of the grass with his walking stick. The butane man had his truck turned around, parked in the barrow ditch, and had the butane hose out and ready to go. Things were pretty much locked and loaded. The butane man was ready, and just waiting on the OK from me. I paused a second, wanting to make sure everyone understood that I was ramrodding this operation. I looked over at the gathering crowd, I looked down at the snake, and then I looked over at the butane man, who was standing in position, with his hose in hand, pointing it at the snake. I gave him the nod, and he blasted the snake with butane. Just as he opened the valve, the snake reared his ugly head up, preparing to strike. The butane hit the snake right in mid-strike. Sure enough, it froze that snake like a block of ice. The butane man then got an extra pair of gloves out of the truck, and went over and picked the snake up. He gave me a pair of gloves, and handed me the snake. I mean that snake was frozen solid, just like a rock. We held the snake a while, looking at the strange site of the snake, with head reared, mouth open, and frozen solid. Then the butane man said that if we were done looking at him, that we could shatter the snake. He said that if the snake was cold enough, if we were to drop him, he would shatter like a piece of glass. Now this sounded like something we had never heard before, and we wanted to try it. So, we decided to proceed with that plan. David had the snake, and he dropped it in the barrow ditch. Only thing is, the snake did not break. The butane man said that it was probably because the snake was not cold enough. It was decided to give the snake another blast of butane. The butane man gave him another blast . . . this time a long one. Again, we picked the snake up, dropped it, but it did not break. We tried again, this time throwing it down against a rock. The snake would simply not shatter. The butane man tried 4 or 5 more times, blasting the snake with butane, and then we would try to break the snake. The snake would not shatter, and would not even break into two pieces.
The butane man then told us that while we had not been successful in breaking the snake, that we could try burning him. With all the butane we had sprayed on him, he was most likely saturated with butane, and we could light the frozen snake on fire. The butane man then asked if anyone had any matches. Given that I had taken the trash out that morning, I still had the book of matches in my pocket. Things just kept getting better and better. Not only had I found the snake, not only had I been in charge of how to kill the snake, and not only did I have a growing crowd watching the operation, I now was the one with a book of matches. I would be the one to catch the snake on fire. Somewhere in all this excitement, the old rule of not playing with matches, and not playing with fire had been forgotten by me. The butane man decided to give the snake one last blast, before I threw a match on it. With this one, extra-long blast done, I was ready to strike the match. The 5,000 gallon butane truck was behind us in the barrow ditch; the snake, David, the butane man, and I were all in front of the truck in the barrow ditch. I had my book of matches. I struck the match, and I tossed it down on the snake.
Now a lot of things all sort of happened at the same time, so I will try and describe it as best as I can. As I tossed the match down onto the snake, I saw a blinding white flash. Out of a simple reflex, I turned my face, held my breath, and closed my eyes. I felt a blast of warmth against my face. As I turned back and opened my eyes, I saw a huge fire ball travelling down the barrow ditch away from us. I looked over my shoulder, and saw another fireball going down the barrow ditch in the opposite direction as well. I then looked down, and saw that the barrow ditch where I was standing was on fire, up to about my knees. I then saw one of the most alarming things of all. The 5,000 gallon butane truck was parked in the barrow ditch in the midst of this fire, about three feet from me.
Now at the time, my knowledge of thermodynamics, chemistry, and combustion was still in its infancy, so I could not understand exactly what happened. Apparently though, butane is heavier than air, even after it turns to a gas. All that butane that the driver had sprayed on that snake had not simply dispersed, but it had pooled up in the barrow ditch, forming an invisible, combustible river up and down the barrow ditch. When I threw the match on the snake, it ignited this river of butane gas. So lets get back to the scene of the crime. I am now standing knee high in the barrow ditch fire, and a few feet away is a 5,000 gallon butane truck. As I looked at the situation, I realized I had two options. I could stand there and be blown into oblivion as the butane truck exploded in a few seconds, or, I could run as fast as I could and be blown into oblivion 10 feet down the rode as the butane truck exploded. Given these two options, I decided to go ahead and run. Both David and I took off, running out of the barrow ditch, and down the Will Davis road. After running about 15 feet, I suddenly felt my feet leaving the ground, and being heaved up into the air. It was Goya. Now, there are people who will tell you that fat ladies can not run, but I am here to tell you that it is not true. She ran like the wind. On her way bye, she picked me up, threw me over her shoulder, and picked David up by the waste with her other arm, and she ran like something you have never seen. Now being perched up on her shoulder, I was able to look back down the road at what was unfolding about 15 feet away at the butane truck. I saw that the fire under the truck was growing in intensity. Then I saw the hose that was connected to the 5,000 gallon truck, and then I saw clearly how we would all die. The hose was down on the ground, the fire was burning through the hose, and flames were beginning to dance out of the hose, as its structural integrity was being lost. I realized that it would be just a matter of a few seconds until the hose was completely degraded, and the butane truck would explode. Strangely, my thoughts were then centered on the question of how they would figure out which set of charred remains to put in which casket. I remembered then that I had been to the dentist in the last few months, so they would likely be able to identify me from recent dental records. I assumed that they would figure out that the larger charred remains would be Goya, and the other small pile of ashes would be David. I took some comfort in knowing that they would at least be able to bury each of us in the right box.
So now my attention turned back to the truck, and I saw an amazing thing. While Goya, David and I had decided our only option was to run for our lives, I saw that the butane truck driver realized that there was a third option. Working in the industry, he probably realized more than anyone else the futility of running. As I looked back at the truck, I saw a most amazing thing. The butane man was running back into the fire, back to the truck. He was not exactly running, it was more of a strange dance. Sort of a combination of some sort of hillbilly high-step and the chicken dance. It was like he thought if he kept high stepping and flapping his arms he would avoid being burned, as he ran into the fire. Flapping his arms like a chicken appeared to be a critical part of his plan, as they were moving like nobody's business. There are people that will tell you that man can not fly by flapping his arms, but I am here to tell you that I think the butane man achieved an altitude of about a foot and a half from the lift created by those flapping arms. He danced to the back of the truck, and closed the valve connecting the big tank to the hose. This was a critical step that bought us a few more moments of life. It was that darn hose that was about to fall apart in the fire. Shutting the gas off to that hose was a critical thing. He then danced his way through the flames, back up to the front of the truck.
He jumped in the truck, and he fired that sucker up. Now there are people that will tell you that you can not pop a wheelie in a butane truck, but I am here to tell you that you can; I saw it happen on this day. The butane man gunned the engine, and popped that clutch, and the front of that truck came about three feet off the ground. He pulled that truck out of the fire in the barrow ditch, and my friend, he saved the day.
He got the truck out of danger, Goya eventually slowed, and put us down. It was at this point that I walked back to the scene of the crime. There was that snake, now in the middle of the road. His tail was charred to a crisp, no doubt burned in the blast, or subsequent fire. His mid section was somewhat normal in appearance, and his front third and head were still frozen solid. While I don't know anything about snake physiology in cases like this, what I can tell you is that the middle part of the snake was twitching. It was moving like nothing had happened, and was slinging his frozen front third around. This looked like something out of Dante's third level of hell. It was quite a site.
Now, the immediate danger of explosion was over, but the fire in the barrow ditch had turned into what might be called a raging grass fire. We were about 3/4 of a mile due west of the town of Eldorado, TX, population 1,275. There was a brisk eastwardly wind, and due to the very dry summer, there was nothing between us and the western outskirts of the town but very dry brush and grass. The fire was picking up speed, and was heading right for town. Now someone had called the fire department, and at this point, you could hear the main fire whistle going off in town, calling in the volunteer firemen, and you could hear the sirens on the first firetrucks as they left the station. Leading the effort to put the range fire out, and save the town that day was Schleicher County Volunteer Truck Number 1, pictured above. Some of the fire boys came out to battle the fire, while others went to the west end of town, to begin the evacuation of this part of town. They also tried to set up a fire line as a last line of defense to protect the town.
I just stood there in front of the snake. I looked to my right and I saw a fire that would likely burn the city down that I had started. I looked at my feet, and I saw a six foot snake. Its tail burned to a crisp, its head still frozen, and its mid-section moving and twitching. I looked down the road, and about 15 feet away I saw Sheriff Orville Edmiston pulling up in his squad car. I looked down at my hand, and there still grasped in my little fingers was that book of matches. I can only wonder what officer Orville Edmiston thought as he drove up on this scene. Anyway, he pulled up in his squad car, and was sort of walking over in my direction. I had this uneasy feeling that he was perhaps drawing a connection between me, my book of matches, and the scene unfolding around us. I did not have much time, and did not have many options. I figured I could run for it, but since he knew me, and knew where I lived, that one would probably not work. I could lie, but that one would be hard, in that I could not come up with a reasonable story in the next six seconds. Officer Edmiston was known in these parts as being particlularly good at crime scene investigations, and those who had tried to lie to him in the past had been found out. The third option was to tell the truth. As officer Edmiston got to me, he looked at me and said, "What happened here?" Then a forth option came to mind. I could basically tell the truth, and then try and pass the buck. I decided to try this one. I told him that I had found a snake. I was going to smash it with a rock. The butane man told me we could freeze it. He then told me I could throw a match on it. I threw the match, and that started the fire. I was obeying the butane man. Officer Edmiston just sort of stood there and looked at me. After what must have been the longest three seconds of my life, he sort of nodded at me, and then looked over my shoulder at the butane man, who was about 15 feet behind me. He sort of started moseying over in the direction of the butane man. I had dodged lightening. He did not shoot me on the spot, which probably would have been the vote of the good citizens living on the western outskirts of Eldorado, Tx, population 1,275. He did not arrest me. He did not tell me to go sit in the squad car. He did not even tell me that I needed to hang around. I about decided that I had gotten away with things. I looked over to my right again, and the Eldorado Volunteer Fire department was making a desperate last stand to keep the houses in town from catching on fire, I looked down, and the snake was still moving around, I looked in my hand, and the matches were still there, and I looked up the road and I saw the most terrifying thing that I had seen all day. I saw a little green volkswagon pulling up behind officer Edmiston's squad car. It was my dad. He got out of the car, and walked over to me. The story that had worked so well with the Sheriff did not work so well with my dad. He just told me to get in the car. We went home, and I got a good old fashioned whipping. You see, there was a clear rule against playing with matches. I clearly understood it, and I chose to ignore it. The fact that I had ignored the rule almost killed me and other people, and had caused great chaos that day. It was a big whipping, and I deserved it.
Later than evening my dad made popcorn, and I sat in his lap as we enjoyed the big bowl of popcorn together. We talked about things like whether Jesse James had left any of the James Gang loot hidden somewhere for someone to find. We talked about Herman Lehmann, the boy who had been captured by the Apache in the late 1800's. We talked about the lost Dutchman's mine, and whether anyone would ever find that. We talked about J. Frank Dobie's book, Coronado's Children.
I learned a lot of things on August 23, 1968. I learned that there was a reason for rules. I learned that rules were there to protect us. I learned that when we ignore rules, we endanger ourselves and others. I learned that there were ramifications from ignoring the rules. I also learned that no matter what I did, my dad still loved me. I was able to see that my bad actions did not affect the love that my father had for me. I guess maybe it was not such a bad day after all.