It’s six a.m. on the fourth of July. Filling up the dump truck outside of Mojave on the 58 to Barstow. I pull the truck over to the air/water station to give the rig the once over before a 1,000 mile non-stop. Dropping the hood after an A-OK, I see them. Road Demons. Oh yeah. Real Demons. I know the breed. Raised with some of their young in juvenile facilities and half-way house ranch homes. Their boys are usually mean and heartless. They don’t tend to get any nicer as they age. The five men and one woman staring at me from the dirty windows of a beat up stretch van all have the same look. Prey? I give them a pantomime. I use my right fist to make a head bash movement, then, I pretend to bend over and drag someone backwards by their armpits while casting a quick eye around. I then stand up straight and bow at the van. They all nod as one and smile back at me.
As Rick comes out with our road coffees I ask him to check out the van from his rear view mirror as I start the truck and pull around past it. I ask him if anyone is looking at us. Rick says. “Nope”! Every time I sip my coffee I check to see if its behind us. After we hit the 15 to Vegas I lightened up.
It’s a free ride through Vegas. The Fourth is a good holiday to travel. Most prefer barbeques and fireworks to long desert drives. Out of Nevada into Utah, only an occasional spattering of huge rain drops on the windshield from dark clouds miles away finally reaching us. The flat boring desert breaks into some wonderful rock formations and gullies cut by racing waters. No water in them though. Drought and wild fires have the air like dry kindling as you suck it in.
With no stereo and bible thumpers on the radio from Salt Lake City it’s story time. Rick the Great asks me if we could stop at the Calico Mines some time. He was captivated by the road signs promising a great time for the family. I tell him the story of a Widowmaker. Not the King, another story. This was about the F.W.D.
Sometimes the Dead should be left alone about raps its story up in a nutshell. As at the beginning of this story, let’s face it. Some people are just plain bad. The degrees can vary. but they’re out there all right. I would have to say the same goes for a lot of other things. Machines for example.
I had a truck parked at the far end of my Acton ranch that sat there for YEARS. It’s personally killed three men and maimed at least a dozen more. When I asked my truck pal George Sack to come check it out after finally getting it to my place, he didn’t even get out of his Dodge pickup. He stared at it, then me, then told me to hop in and we would go to lunch. I wondered if he would look over my new rig first, I was all excited at making it home in second gear all the way from Aqua Dulce, ten miles away. Putting his truck in drive Sack said a tight lipped, “Fuck you and fuck that truck. It’s a bad luck piece of shit man killer. Get the fuck rid of it!” He then backed to the pavement and left me in his dust.
After some of my own experiences, I left the truck in isolation. To unload it on someone else would just bring me some cosmic bad luck. Until I figured out a better plan, it sat. Battery cables disconnected. With no help from George, I take some photos of it around to various mechanics and truck repair shops wondering if anyone was familiar with the company. Even after the internet almost zip on specs. Info on the F.W.D. company, sure. No spec manuals. Zero. Zip. Nada. I pretty much figured all the controls out on my own. I also figured out how it could have hurt and killed so many guys. It was alive. Oh yeah. I find out later from Sack that he himself had driven the truck to a film shoot in the valley once, years prior. He told me the truck was one treacherous bastard. He would never, ever, drive it again. “It almost killed me a bunch of times. It pops out of gear. The brake gauges show everything is fine then they fail you. The crane controls just go out of control. It has those dual controls on each side of the boom and it feels at times like someone is working the controls the same time that you are. It’s a scary truck. Just junk the fucking thing!”
I had won the truck in a poker game in what was most likely the only case of a guy cheating to lose. The owner tells me after the game I’m responsible for its transport. If it wasn’t gone by the next Saturday he would start charging me storage fees until I did remove it. Fine. I ask if one of his drivers will take it to my place for a fee. He just said a low, “Good luck with that my friend!”, then pointed to a bill of sale laying on the table as he got up and left. I was estatic! I already knew the truck well. Every time I went to the Boston Henry drilling and well shop I would always walk around the faded orange truck parked in the rear yard, all by itself. It sat tall. Real tall. It’s what’s called in the trade a C.O.E. Cab over engine. To access the 612 horse V-8 you had to pull two steel rods just under the drivers seat through some tiny steel steps built into the frame. The steps had pointed teeth welded into the tops. To better catch your heel and plunge you into a head first fall to the ground. Once behind the big steel steering wheel, you were trapped in place. The bench seat was bolted into one position. If over 170 pounds, get used to that four foot around wheel hitting you right in your belly button. Don’t even try to wriggle into any sort of comfort zone. Accept it and get to stage two. Starting it.
Now, you’re thinking of starting your own vehicle. Forget that idea. This truck was built in 1960. Its name on the only ad I could find on it? THE TRACTIONEER!!! Yep. No bullshit. Look it up. Built to go anywhere. Six wheel drive. 14 ton, forty five foot extending boom. Sixteen foot alligator armored steel bed with diamond plate in the middle. A twelve foot long, thirty inch around steel auger to drill holes for power poles. Under the boom, a rear projected forty thousand pound winch with two hundred feet of five eighths braided cable ending in a giant steel hook. At the end of the boom was a grab claw to pick up poles to set them in the new holes you just dug. Just like at the job site at the Calico Mines where it killed its first man. Back in the early sixties, it was owned by Edison. They had to truck it on a lowboy to any really tough job; their regular trucks couldn’t cut it. Its huge engine sucked up fantastic amounts of fuel. It got one mile to the gallon no matter how you drove it. In six wheel drive carrying the end of a seventy foot pole on its bed held by the winch? A half mile to the gallon.
Since it was such a monster to drive, the crews aware of its rep would palm it off on new guys. After a quick lesson on how to work the controls, another sucker was snickered at as he attempted to lift a pole for the first time. Hey, what was the big deal? Some laughs then the guy would give up. Nope. This time the new guy seemed to have a knack. Out went the extender boom. Open went the toothed-with-steel jaws to grab wood pinchers. Fully opened, they gaped forty inches wide. As the forty five foot pole lifted clear, the new driver beamed down at his co-workers while exclaiming, “This is a piece of cake!” Then the boom went out of control right into some power lines way on the other side of the truck. Fighting the controls from his side of the bed, the new guy couldn’t even see the other side of the truck from his position. Some amp sparks, a loud crackle of high voltage then the operators shirt caught on fire as he slumped against the all steel control console. The power surge killed the engine but not the voltage. It was a few minutes until they could knock out the power and get the body down. The F.W.D. had its Edison decals pulled and the truck was sent to be sold at auction. A company in Santa Barbara bought it to do tree trimming work. It maimed and injured so many employees it was traded for an old water truck.
It ends up at another auction. This time bought by Boston Henry in Aqua Dulce. It’s such a pain in the ass the Henrys try to make their money back by renting it out for movie shoots and such. That’s how Sack ended up driving it. To a movie shoot. Two hotshots rent the truck for a job they had lined up. They needed the auger to set some posts for a mini barn and hay storage shed.
Getting to the ranch early, they follow the owner’s directions and back the rig into the edge of some large pepper trees. Circles can be seen showing where the holes are to be drilled. The ranch owner, a nice looking blonde in her thirties wonders if the boys would like a beer. Hell, it was in the 80’s already and it was Saturday. Why not? A six pack later while perusing the handmade sketches for the structure, the men return to the truck, fire it up and set the stantion legs to support the crane. Once the legs are set, you can operate the crane controls. Oh, after you choose your operating gear speed then put the controls to the dual positions on the rear bed behind the tall cab. If the interior gear jumps out, adios rear control. Instantly. Usually it will just stop. Not all the time. It had happened to me before. That’s why I would use number ten ground wire already looped to fit over the tall shifter with the steel knob on top to the brake pedal. Something these guys didn’t know about.
As the man on the ground gave instructions the man on the left side controls started to extend the boom towards the eight by eights in a pile to the left. As the man at the controls started to struggle with the levers the boom started going out all on its own while swinging out of control to its far left. As tree branches started to creak and snap the truck finally shuddered to a stop. Not before the boom hit a 220 line going out to a guest house in back high up in the pepper trees. The boom man died instantly. His buddy died later in the hospital. He had tried to pull his pal free and caught some voltage while standing on wet grass under the left stantion support.
The rig ends up back at the Boston/Henry yard. It’s traded for another truck to Dave Woods. Oh man. Woods. A real piece of work. Shifty. Clever. Knew every con and trick to be known in the drilling trade. Chased by many and wanted in six counties. I loved the guy. I worked for him for a year off and on to pay back a well he drilled for me. Actually, by his nephew, Brian Flowers. Brian stories are really funny. Another time on him.
Woods was this kind of guy: Once I went with him to collect a debt on a well he had drilled. It was up off Hierba road behind the Pepper Tree Market off Sierra Highway. It was around nine at night. Woods and I had just left the Aqua Dulce bar and were pretty lit up. The porch light comes on illuminating the entree, then, pitch black and stars once out of its aura. The man who opens the door is pissed. He towers over the both of us. Woods at first glance looks like a grown up Opie from the Andy Griffith show. It’s what got him over. At first. Fifty grand later you want to punch Opie out.
So, the big man steps past his screen to start berating Woods for a thief and a rip off artist. Something about promised water or whatever. I stay next to Dave but say nada. As the man steps even closer to Dave, Woods suddenly starts to bawl while tearing his worn out white shirt off. The man steps back, his face aghast. In the yellow of the porch light I step forward to see what the man in staring at. From Woods breast bone to his naval is a zig zag blood red wound held together by about a hundred staples close together. HOLY SHIT! While starting to cry, Woods tells the man he did the best he could but his kidney operation had taken all of his cash. That’s why we couldn’t pick up the drop pipe in Bakersfield for his well casing. As we sat in Woods truck outside the bar in Aqua Dulce recounting the ten grand cash the man had given us for the pipe, Woods looked over at me just before shutting off his dome light and smiled that Opie smile while saying, “I knew the scar would seal the deal!”
Before I can finish the F.W.D. story some events happened around us taking our minds off the past and back to the present. While I let off the gas to let an 18 wheeler cut over from the right lane to pass a string of slower semis ahead of him as we turned onto the 70 to Denver, a red BMW cuts me off and also cuts off the big dual trailer truck I was letting into my lane. He has to swerve so hard to miss her his rear trailer swings back and forth making the tires smoke up in billows as he hammered his brakes. I hit the dirt in the meridian since the dump bed blocks a clear view directly behind me. Better safe then sorry. The picture of ten cars rear ending me flashed through my mind as I slid in the gravel, under control but not in a good spot. I check my right mirror, see that all the cars had slowed with no problem, I get back in the fast lane.
About a mile up the road I pass the Cowboy’s truck with the custom dual exhaust stacks. He’s about thirty, wore a Stetson like John Wayne’s in Rio Bravo and had a wild look on his face. He looked down at Rick and I as we rolled past him on a big incline and nodded. Adios compadre. In about five miles I come up on a string of cars stuck behind some suck ass doing fifty right next to a big rig doing the same. You know the type. Some half a fag who beats off to ‘Broke Back Mountain’. The type of fuck wad who enjoys fucking traffic over. This time I loved the little asshole. He had our yuppie gal pal stuck behind him about five cars back. Cool. Now I could maybe get some payback. Not road rage. Just some running off the road into a cement buttress while calm and collected. I don’t get the pleasure. Like the maniac driver in ‘DUEL’, I see an 18-wheeler coming up on my rear getting bigger and bigger with every glance to my left mirror. I hit my brakes and pull behind the truck in the slow lane. I let two more cars do the same in front of me who are hep to what’s coming up behind us. Not yuppie girl. She’s still riding the bumper of the car in front of her.
As the semi roars past me, I hug the line to see what is going on ahead. From the cars hanging back next to me, it had to be something. Couldn’t see a thing as we were now in a curving downhill grade cutting to the right. As the road leveled off, I was able to get behind three cars that passed me. Like ducklings, the cars ahead of me behind the slow load jumped behind my wake. We all saw the same thing at about the same time. Far up the highway as it started to curve to the left was a tiny red car with an 18-wheeler one inch off its back bumper. Both doing over ninety. OH MY GOD IT WAS UNBELIEVABLE! Then, into some canyons they went. The gazelle and the hungry dragon still inches apart…