We put Charlie in the ambulance when it arrived. Charlie didn’t have a phone, but one guy thought he knew where he lived. We sent him to bring the family to the hospital. I knocked my crew off and went to the hospital with another supervisor, where we learned Charlie was dead. I didn’t know exactly what I felt, but I stood outside the emergency room, waiting for someone I didn’t know, to tell them their son or husband was dead. Charlie was a black man, so we asked every black person who came to the entrance who they were there for. Finally I saw a man who was the exact image of Charlie, his father I learned, and I told him “Charlie didn’t make it.”
Over the next few hours at least twenty family members crowded into the emergency room lobby, screaming, wailing, and calling on Jesus to bring Charlie back. The hospital employees tried to direct them to a small chapel down the hall, but they ignored them. Charlie’s grandmother, a heavy woman, collapsed outside the room where his body lay. I tried to catch her but I barely softened the fall as we both went down. Later in the evening the vice-presidents arrived, fat men in suits. They comforted the family for a while, then one came over to the corner where I was standing. He put his arm around me. I felt tiny pushed up against his weight. He said, “Son, I think you’ve handled yourself real well today. But don’t tell the family any details about the accident. At least not until we get our lawyers down here.” I went home after that and sat up most of the night.
The mill was subdued the next morning. Everyone moved about their business quietly. I stood under the shed that covered the grading station and watched my crew work. I had not slept. The vice-presidents followed the plant manager across the gravel yard. They made their way to my station, pointed, nodded their heads, moved along. One vice-president called me over and pointed at my knuckle boom.
A knuckle boom is a crane that works like the claws of a crab. It can pinch four cross ties together and stack them as neatly as a child playing Lincoln logs. This one leaked hydraulic oil. Every time the operator picked up a set of ties, oil squirted from half a dozen hose couplings, saturating the ground underneath. The smell of oil overpowered the sour smell of oak timbers. The man said: “Your equipment is leaking pretty badly. You should have the maintenance department do something about that.”
I had been after the maintenance supervisor for weeks, complained to the plant manager, tried to fix the leaks myself one day and only made them worse. Maintenance finally placed a fifty-five gallon drum of oil on the operator’s platform, fitted with a hand pump, so that every morning we lost thirty minutes adding oil to the reservoir. I told the man about all of this and he said, “Don’t worry. I’ll chew some ass and get this taken care of.” And then he walked off, feeling good about himself, I suppose.
I sat there for half an hour, thinking that it shouldn’t be like that. It shouldn’t take a corporate vice-president to repair a hydraulic hose any more than a plant manager should make personnel decisions based on union membership. Kerr-McGee was as leaky as my knuckle boom, and my life was too short to fix all the problems. I walked across the yard to the office. The plant manager was busy; he looked harried. He asked if I could wait until later. The vice-presidents waited in the next room, hungry to point out what was wrong with our plant. I dropped my hard hat, radio, and keys to the front gate on his desk and walked out the door. The guy looked like he wanted to cry, and for a moment I thought about picking my things up. But the feeling passed quickly enough.