As I’ve explained before in other stories, my first 4 years after college were spent traveling the country. Not the 60’s, hippie, hitchhiking, peace-love-and-understanding kind of travel. (That was my Big Bruddah) No, my adventure was all expenses paid by my employer. Of course, the one catch to this deal was I had to go wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted me to. Not knowing what state I was going to be in from month to month, and sometimes day to day, tended to put a crimp in planning my social calendar.
It wasn’t the easiest way to live, but it wasn’t without its charms. Had I not been living out of a suitcase and eating all my meals in restaurants, I’d have never met the lovely Mrs. 20 Prospect. I’d also have much lower cholesterol. For 3 years I think I ate French fries at least twice a day. Not the healthiest way to live, but far from the worst vice for a field service engineer.
Most of my co-workers and I fell into the category of social misfits, or eccentrics. It really is the perfect sort of job for a person that can’t function for any length of time in normal society. Whether I was spending weeks alone in some God-forsaken corner of the country working at a power plant, or enjoying the camaraderie of a team of coworkers it always helped to be easily entertained. I know it’s hard to believe but such locales as Colstrip, Montana; Stanton, North Dakota; Springerville, Arizona; Pascagoula, Mississippi; and Nekoosa, Wisconsin weren’t exactly hopping places. While the poets of my generation were living in Seattle, or Prague, taking in the “scene”, and spending their nights in bacchanalian orgies, I was usually sitting on my bed in a motel room watching Twin Peaks, and drinking beer from a can.
I had a simple policy that I tried to follow no matter where I traveled; I never went to bars alone. So no matter where I was stuck, unless there happened to be another field service engineer along with me, I stayed inside most evenings. Even at 22 I knew that this sort of lifestyle was all too conducive to becoming a hard core alcoholic. It seemed that in this line of work you were either single and in your early 20’s, married with kids and in your mid-30’s, or divorced and in your late 40’s. I vowed to get out while I was still young.
In the mean time, I was paying off debt, and enjoying the lessons in humanity 101 that seemed to play out before me on a daily basis. I swear I learned more about people in my 4 years of traveling, than any school could ever have taught me. The cast of characters I encountered were drawn with sharp lines, and bold colors. I think I feel a story coming on…
In the spring of 1993, I was one of four engineers on site for a 3 week outage inspection in Central Pennsylvania. We were working 7 day weeks, and the lead engineer on the job was a friend of mine named John, from Philly. He was seemingly always unshaven, cussed with every sentence he spoke, and always had a dip inside his cheek. He amused me endlessly. We’d worked together before out west, and he’d taken me under his wing like a kid brother, always looking out for me as we shot pool in cowboy bars. For my part I became a great non-judgmental resource for him to learn proper grammar, and teach him the ways of normal society.
The second engineer on the job was a short, skinny Irish kid from eastern Massachusetts named Pat. He spoke with a classic Boston accent, and looked for all the world like a leprechaun. Putting a beer into him, was like inserting a quarter in the jukebox. His mouth would start moving, and for the next 20 minutes you could just sit and listen.
The third and final engineer on the job was a 40 something guy from Texas named Steve. I’d had the displeasure of working with Steve several times before in various spots around the country. He was far from being a stellar performer, which explained why his District Manager was always shopping him around to other districts that were in desperate need of a warm body. I won’t mention his last name, except to say that it started with “R-U-D”. This is important to our story because John from Philly insisted on calling him the “Rud-Dud.”
Rud-Dud would show up at the breakfast room at the motel each morning, coffee in one hand, cigarette in the other, and a far away smile on his face. As the day went on, he would gradually become more and more cantankerous, until by 4 pm he was downright surly. John wasn’t the sort of guy that had a lot of patience for ineptitude, so he always teamed me up with the Rud-Dud. It was my job to babysit him, and make sure he didn’t wander off and find a quiet corner of the boiler to take a nap in.
I was still a pretty young and naïve guy, and as such I was curious as to why he was always so happy in the morning, and cranky in the afternoon. One Saturday afternoon as we peeled off our coveralls to eat our lunches, John looked at the clock and asked if we’d like to put in another 4 hours to finish off our work, so that we could take Sunday off. For me and Pat, it sounded like a great idea; a morning to sleep in, and lay around the motel watching TV and reading the paper. So I was surprised when the Rud-Dud refused. John lived a couple of hours away with his wife and small kids, and was hoping to be able to spend a day at home with them, so he pressed on and insisted that we put in the OT. It was at this point that Rud-Dud got squirrely, and started to sweat. He continued to refuse to stay late at the plant, and finally confessed that his issue was the local Liquor Store closed at 7pm, and wouldn’t open again until noon on Monday.
That’s when I learned to never come between and alcoholic and their alcohol. A compromise was reached, and we let Steve stop at the liquor store during our dinner break so that he could restock himself with a bottle of Jack.
Sunday passed peacefully. I sat in my room reading the NY Times, and drinking coffee, while Steve stood out on his balcony smoking and sipping on his Whiskey. When Monday arrived the weather had turned, and heavy wet snow was falling hard. We met for breakfast in the lobby before heading to the plant, and in a momentary lapse of judgment, Pat and I decided to let the Rud-Dud drive.
The snow was piling up quickly as we drove through the dark. Climbing a hill I saw a pair of headlights appear ahead of us, and begin drifting into our lane. Sitting in the passenger seat, my eyes grew big, and my mouth fell open, but the Rud-Dud just drove on staring straight ahead at the onrushing car. Finally Pat let out a scream, and yelled at him to watch the eff out, and slowly the synapses began to light up in the Rud-Dud’s cerebral cortex. He turned the wheel and veered into the other lane, just as I dropped my cup of coffee onto the seat and reached for the dashboard to brace for impact. The whole world seemed to slow down, and I can remember watching my coffee cup bounce off of the seat and land upside down in the Rud-Dud’s lap. I can remember looking out the window and seeing the open mouth of the other driver as he slid helplessly into our path. I can even remember thinking “why isn’t my life flashing before my eyes like it does in the movies? What a gyp!”
Thankfully, the angels were watching that day, and swept down from the heavens to steer us out of harms way. The other car smashed hard into our passenger side door, bounced off of the guardrail and came to a stop 100 feet down the road. We spun in circles on the icy road and came to rest in the ditch facing back down the hill.
I sat there stunned, looking out the window at the tire marks twisting through the snow, as the Rud-Dud screamed in pain from the lap full of hot coffee, and Pat lay in the backseat spewing a stream of profanity that would make a sailor blush. I suddenly had a new appreciation for life. Brushes with death can be like that. To this day, that is the closest I have come to biting it in a car accident. Thankfully, no one was hurt and the incident soon became fodder for Pat to tell over the bar at happy hour. Hell, we even bought a round for the Rud-Dud. Just not before breakfast.