Odd Man Out



It was the Chief of Staff who ended up running for the snack.  The evening address on climate change was imminent, and the President insisted that he would not go on without something to settle his stomach.  James Harsham, the President’s right hand man, turned in a 360 degree circle to delegate the task, but found everyone in the Oval Office involved in some part of the circus that is a Presidential address to the nation.  Seeing everything well in hand, he decided that a quick trip to the kitchen wouldn’t hurt.  Out the door, turn right, down the far staircase, through the intern’s office (a desk in the hallway), past the restrooms, left again, then right, and suddenly Harsham found himself enveloped in steam from the dishwasher at the back of the kitchen.  Stepping through the swinging doors, all conversation came to a halt.  Twenty heads turned to look at him, as though he was some alien.

The head chef came hustling up.  “Mr. Harsham, is there something that I can get for you?  Why didn’t you just call?  I would be happy to bring it up.  Are you hungry?  Does the President want something?  Why are you here?”

Harsham patted the air.  “It’s alright, it’s alright.  The President is going on in a few minutes, and he just wanted a small snack to settle his stomach.  Do you have anything basic?  Celery sticks?  Carrots, anything?

The chef whirled around and rushed to the walk-in fridge.  “A snack!  Carrot sticks is what he always calls for at night.  I’ll have a bunch for you in just a sec.”  In a flurry of knife wielding, he presented a perfect crystal dish of carrot sticks, neatly sliced into uniform pieces and fanned out.  Harsham grabbed the dish and retreated, and the chef collapsed against the edge of a sink, wiping his brow.  “A snack!”

Upstairs, the makeup person had finished and the sound man was checking the microphones.  The President spotted his Chief of Staff coming through the door with the carrot sticks and waved him over.  “Oh God, thanks Jim.  I really needed this.”  The sound guy nodded and backed away.  Carrot stick in hand, the President and his chief went over the talking points for the fifth time, selecting stress points and generally massaging the speech.

Five minutes later, the camera crew counted down.  At “And… five..”, the President swallowed his last piece of carrot stick half chewed.  At “..four..” the carrot stick lodged itself sideways in the Presidents larynx, blocking the epiglottis and preventing it from moving.  At “…three..” the President’s eyes started bulging, and his gag reflex kicked in.  At “…two…” someone in the back of the room said, quietly, “There’s something wrong.”

At “…one…” the President swung his arm and knocked over the glass of water at his side, spilling it across the papers on the desk in front of him.  As the crew member pointed to the President and the cameras went live to the nation, the President rose halfway out of his seat, coughed the carrot stick out of his mouth on live TV, and collapsed of a massive cerebral hemorrhage in front of the camera.  The spike in his blood pressure had burst a major artery in his brain, and he was dead in three seconds.  Blood flowing out of his ears and nose stuck the papers to the desk.

The President’s Secret Service detail immediately surrounded the body, picked it up and hustled it out of the Oval Office.  Armed White House security guards entered the room and told everyone to stay right where they were, and to remain calm.

James Harsham tried to follow the Secret Service out of the office, but the door was blocked by a guard.  “Please, sir, it would be best if everyone just stayed here for now.”  Harsham spun around, gaping at the camera crew and his staff, and he collapsed into the President’s arm chair by the fireplace.  What now?  Reaching out, he grabbed a carrot stick from the plate at his elbow and took a bite.

An Oldster’s Om



“The last thing I want to know is what you did on your date!  Just shut up and leave me alone.  You guys are disgusting!”

The slamming of my daughter’s bedroom door was the punctuation to that tirade.  Teens.  You can’t live with them…

It had started out as just another observation over the dinner table. We had finally found a night when Jenny, our daughter, and Jessie and I were all available at last for a real traditional dinner.  Jess went all out.  There wasn’t a single microwaved item on the table.  There was the “How did your day go?” thread that we kept alive for ten minutes.  There was the “How was school?” thread that lingered for thirty seconds.  And then there was the “Your mother and I were thinking…” thread that stopped all forward motion for quite a while.

What we were thinking about was a weekend retreat held by a local Buddhist monastery that catered to the locals on the odd occasion.  A Zen Relationship workshop was coming up, and Jessie had asked me if I was up to putting a bit of spirit back into our relationship.  The fact that she asked with a slight leer in her voice and twinkle in her eye was all the prompting I needed.  She signed us up that night.

Did you know that Buddhists have websites?  I always thought they were on the far side of the Amish and Mennonites and Luddites and all of those.  Nope.  MacBook Pro all the way.  I began to think of carrying a begging bowl around with me if those are the results.  It was a real glitzy site.  High production values. The part I wasn’t too thrilled with was the 4 am rising time for meditation on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  Then breakfast at 7.  Oh well.  It was one weekend.  I would survive.  And I was looking forward to the benefits.  I had a mental poster of that leer up on my psychic wall all weekend. I would have to look up the correct spelling and usage for “Ravish” when we get back.  I don’t think it’s supposed to be “Ravage.  That’s different.

We snuggled and played a bit Friday night after arriving at the retreat.  There was one sharp “SSHHHHHH!” from outside our room at about midnight, but we giggled it away and the band played on.

4 am. Do you know it’s still dark at 4 am?  I had slept for three and a half hours, and I looked like I had caught my head in a grackle’s nest.  My mouth tasted like a litter box, and one eye was glued shut.  Meditation was going to be a piece of cake.

We sat.  Cross-legged.  Jess kept me awake with the occasional poke until one of the monks came over and separated us.  After five minutes of snoring, he came back with Jessie in tow and sat her back down.  I believe the admonition was “Silent meditation.  Please.”  We survived.

Breakfast was wonderful.  Yummy food, eaten silently and just staring at my sweetie.  The intentionality of being wholly alone with Jessie was enough to deepen my feelings of love, respect, and desire.  By the end of breakfast and washing up, I was ready for a little nap and rolling around.  I didn’t get it.

We walked.  Around and around, with everyone else, for hours.  We stopped for food, and walked some more.  We stopped for food again, and more walking.  When it got dark, we sat and meditated, eyes open, eyes shut, but always together.  Then we slept.  No rolling around.

4 am.  It was getting better.  Another day of meditating and walking with my love, and then a silent ride home with loving kindness in my heart.  We stopped on the way for a bottle of wine.

Jenny was out when we got home, so we caught up on our nap time.  The rolling around was silent, and open-eyed.  We smiled a lot.

Just before dinner, Jenny straggled in.  We must have had that flush that you get after a weekend of deep meditation.  Like the rosy glow of good health, or a profound experience.  Or just deep contentment.  We just wanted to share our awareness and happiness with our daughter.  Our enthusiasm was cut short by her admonition.  “God, you guys, the last thing I want to know is…”





My father lay dying, gasping through the oxygen mask.  I admit I was hovering, knowing the end was near, and not comfortable with it.  He was my mentor, the patriarch of the family business.  He had taught me most of what I know, and this end was not fitting for him.

He beckoned me over with a finger twitch.  I bent over him, looked him in the eyes, and he smiled up at me.

“Joey, I’ve been waiting to tell you this for forty years.  Pay attention.”

His other hand came out from under the covers, trembling with the effort.  In it was his tool of choice in the family business.  A short steel scratch awl.  He held the wooden handle with confidence, even this close to the end.  The silver metal gleamed.  He kept it very clean, although I knew it was stained with the blood of at least two hundred thirty souls.  Business had been good.

“One day, Son, this awl will be yours!”  He cackled at me then, collapsing back on his pillow, gasping for breath and sucking in oxygen as fast as he could breath.  I gaped at him, not believing his wit and timing.

“You know where all the bodies are buried.  You were the only threat to me, and I taught you so you could be loyal to me and I wouldn’t have to work in fear.  I’m trusting you to keep the business going.”

He gasped at the end of this long speech.  His skin had a bluish cast to it.  The oxygen wasn’t helping.  Through the translucent skin I could see a vein pulsing, throbbing.

“I want just one thing from you now.  It has been a long life, and I’m ready to go.  I’m not sure where I’ll end up, but it doesn’t matter anymore.  I’m tired, and I just want to sleep.  Take it.  It’s yours now.  I’m finished.”

It wasn’t my Dad’s life that was flashing before my eyes.  It was the faces of all the men, and the few women, who he had helped across the same divide he now faced himself.  There was no historical record.  I was the record.  He was leaving me behind as his legacy.

I bent over him again.  “I hear you, Pop.  I’ll do what you want.  You won’t be forgotten.”

He smiled, and his hand opened.  I reached out to him and took the awl.  The handle was warm.  He must have been saving it for me for quite some time.

I stood up, bent down to kiss my father on the forehead, and slid the awl into his ear and through to the left side of his brain.  His eyes widened, his body surged up slightly, and then fell back onto the bed.  I slid the awl out.  There was no blood.  That’s why he preferred it.  The fogging on the oxygen mask cleared.

I picked up the phone and dialed.

“Rhyerson’s Funeral Home. How may I help you?”

“This is Joseph Wickerson calling.  My father has just passed away, and I believe he made his funeral arrangements through you.  Could you tell me what I should do next?”

“My deapest condolences to you, Mr. Wickerson.  I talked to your father last week and he said that you might be calling.  We will send a hearse over immediately and take care of everything.  There will be some papers for you to sign, but you shouldn’t concern yourself right now.  It can be a difficult time, and we will do all we can to help you through it.”

I thanked the man, put the phone down, and slid the awl into my jacket pocket.  Then I sat and waited.

You have to eat a pound of dirt in your life.



This job went wrong from the beginning.  I got the word from the office that I had to be on a drill site and set up in the next twelve hours, or we would lose the client.  When you’re in the oilfield service business, losing a client, meaning one of the big oil companies, is a bad thing.  I put the groceries away, dropped the cat off with the neighbors, and hitched the trailer up to the pickup.  I had eleven and a half hours to get myself across Ohio and half of Pennsylvania, and here it was 9 am.  The word to describe that in Ohio-ese is ‘shee-it.’  That summed it up perfectly.

The drive over was one of those scenic trips on back roads that most people never experience in their lifetime.  I did it every couple of weeks.  It’s funny that they never drill gas wells on an interstate.  I wonder why that is.  Oh, well.  The back roads consist of green, green, and more green, plus the odd split rail fence with car hub caps on it for sale.  The hubcap scavenging business in the heart of the nation is going strong.  There are also tractors, deep brown earth and the smell of manure.  Old ladies in long faded dresses.  Men in bib-alls.  Matching kids, little girls in long faded dresses learning how to be good wives, and sons sitting on the fender of the tractor as it pulls the disc harrow, learning from their dad how to make the earth produce so you can live life.

The trailer behind my truck held a full geology lab, along with gas detectors and all a fella needs to tell the driller when to drill and when to stop, and whether the well will produce.  My background in geology was often scoffed at by the tool pusher and his roughnecks, but the company man from the oil company depended on me to keep him rich, and I kept getting the calls to come out and do my magic.

I pulled onto the drill site at 8 pm, with the sun down but not yet full dark.  I got the trailer spotted as close to the rig as I could get, but the site was a swamp from the rain a day or two ago.  Every step threatened to suck a boot off a foot, and it was wearying just to walk up to the doghouse to get my depth gauges hooked up to the derrick.  I did get a cup of pretty good coffee, and the tool pusher told me not to worry, they weren’t going to spud in until midnight.  That way the surface casing could be set tomorrow in the daylight and the Halliburton cement crew would be happy.  Seven hundred fifty feet of drilling in ten hours would be a chore for the roughnecks, but they were used to it and they knew things would slow down once we got into hard bedrock.

I got back to the trailer and pulled out all of my power cords and hoses and the gas detector head that would be connected to the shaker table where the drill cuttings got sorted out of the drilling mud.  And there was the problem.  The rig and my trailer were separated by the mud pits, two deep, plastic lined holes in the ground, twenty feet across each one, and a hundred feet long, dug out by bulldozer to hold the drilling mud that kept the bit cool and flushed the rock cuttings out of the hole.  I would have to string my lines across that no-man’s-land.

I knew I had enough power line and hose.  I’d be a fool to show up on a job unprepared for any eventuality. It was just a matter of getting everything across that swamp all by my lonesome.  The rig hands were busy and couldn’t help, nor would I ask if I needed to.  It was my job, not theirs.  Their job was to make me coffee, and to produce hole.  Oh, and also to harass me as much as they could.  They sure enjoyed their work.

I pulled a long steel cable out of the trailer and fixed one end to the rear bumper, back where my propane tanks were hitched for those long cold nights.  I grabbed the other end and headed through the soup to the rig, dragging the cable through the mud all the way.  By the time I got to the stairs up to the doghouse, I was covered in mud and it was nine thirty.  Two and a half hours to go. I got to the top of the stairs, and hauled on that cable for all I was worth.  It snaked itself across the lot, through the mud, and out over the pits.  I hauled as hard as I could, and the cable came out of the mud into the air to hang between the trailer and the rig.  Just fine.

I got back to the trailer covered in another layer of mud and tied the power cable and the hoses and depth gauge line together into a long umbilical using electrical tape every five or six feet.  I spliced a spare power cord to the end, and used shackles and twine to hang that sucker to the cable hanging over the pits.  Then back to the rig, another layer of mud, a coffee while the rig hands laughed their asses off and hosed me down with the rig washing hose.  I probably should have been grateful, but I couldn’t show it.  It would upset the balance of the universe.

I had brought that extra power line with me on my last journey, and I started to haul on it, oh so slowly.  Foot by foot, the umbilical was pulled the eighty or a hundred feet out over the pits and up to the doghouse door.  The tool pusher stood there, admiring my ingenuity and trying hard not to show it.  He did this by spitting chewing tobacco as close to my boots as he could without hitting me, something which he had practiced somewhere.  I got my lines strung, smiled, and set in to connecting to the rig.

Hooking up the power line and depth gauge took all of fifteen minutes, but the gas hoses had to go out to the shaker table, and that took another forty five.  I got it done, though, and headed back to my little trailer.  Now for the real killer.

The gas collector is a metal can with a motor on top of it and a hose connection for the gas hose.  It’s stainless steel, and weighs about fifty pounds.  I had to lug this sucker through the mud, around the pits, under the rig and up to the shaker table so I could set it up and connect it to hose and power.  I headed out.

Now, it was late, and I had been working a bit here, and I was tired.  I slipped and slid my way across the site and was skirting the pits when I hit a soft spot under a corner of the pit liner.  I was close, but thought I would be all right.  Then that soft spot gave way just enough and down I went, hard on my ass with a fifty pound gas collector on my shoulder, and damned if I didn’t slide right into the first pit.  I let go of everything and twisted myself around and grabbed that plastic liner with both hands to stop my slide.  I was waist deep, but I stopped.  The gas collector slid by me and I heard it go under.  I hauled, and I came back up to a standing ovation from every single rig hand and the tool pusher.  They had seen the whole thing.

I went back and got the spare gas collector, and this time took the long way around.  Hooking it up was the easiest thing I did all night.  By midnight, when the diesels started roaring and the first joint of drill pipe was hauled up to spud in the well, I was hooked up and running, dry and warm in my trailer.  I recorded the first foot of hole drilled and smiled.  The coffee might have a bit of mud in it, but that was all right.  So did I.