Waking The Dead

Out in the real world of no-collar work, pranking and challenging greenhorns is common.  If you’re a fan of “Deadliest Catch”, you’ve no doubt seen greenhorns being challenged by the Hansen brothers on the first day of the season to bite the head off of a bait fish or another hapless soul being pranked with a flour bomb by the Hillstrands.

In my time,  I’ve seen and/or been the target of a prank or two.  When I first went to work as a Well Logger for the Baroid oil field services division of the National Lead Co., for example, the drilling crew tried to trip me up in a couple of ways.

First up was the two-part hard-hat gambit which started with a friendly challenge take off my hard-hat, sit on the board floor of the drilling site with my legs outstretched and apart and strike the board area between my legs with a claw hammer as hard as I could in precisely the same place ten times in a row, which I did.

The second part of the prank was a challenge to do the same thing with my eyes closed, but I balked.  What, I thought, would I be proving by doing something I’d already done with my eyes open and why had I been be asked at the outset to violate the absolute prohibition of being on-site without a hard-hat?  Two plus two being always four, it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to do it because on the first blow, I’d automatically open my eyes the to the sound of my hard-hit being severely dented.  Perhaps to the point of having to buy another.

The crew were disappointed, but they still had a few things up their roughneck sleeves as I discovered a week or two later when told I needed to climb up the derrick and pour a bottle of colored water into the water table so they could time the circulation of the mud, which is the term of art for drilling fluid.  But here success for the prankster(s) depends on three things – Ignorance, gullibility, and the need to fit in, which speaks for itself.  The ignorance part means barely having a grasp of the nature of drilling and gullibility is tested by relating one liquid – the mud – with another – the colored water – and associating both with the term “water table”.

But for three reasons, I didn’t buy into it.  First, as a well logger I Derrickworked in a modified camping trailer equipped with tools to cover virtually every aspect of drilling progress, including the mud flow rate.  Second, a drilling set up is a somewhat closed system and the only way to get anything into the drill string is to pump it in from the mud pits and the only way it gets out is by way of the discharge chute  into the waste pit or, if not “sour”, into a reserve pit.  And finally, the “water table” has nothing to do with liquids of any kind – It’s the catwalk around the top of the derrick which provides access to the crown block.

Now, if memory serves, it was JFK who famously said, “Don’t get mad.  Get even.” but on an exploratory drilling site, there’s scant opportunity for that.  The same, however, can’t be said for some jobs in the funeral industry.

At one time, I worked a 36-on/36-off schedule for the Ray Crowder Funeral Home on South Hemphill St. in Fort Worth as what was then called a “side-rider” in an ambulance, as well as as a mortician’s assistant.  It’s a strange term – side rider – and one that few, if any, would recognize these days.  It’s just not part of a first responder’s lexicon anymore because it arises from the fact that back then hearses did double duty as ambulances and had a front seat which accommodated the driver and an assistant plus what we might these days call a folding “jump seat” for a second assistant – the side rider – behind the front seat on the passenger’s side.

Just as it does in the oil patch, a successful prank at a funeral home depends on three things – Ignorance, gullibility, and the need to fit in, something I think Steve Goodman captured in his “Turnpike Tom” lyrics when he says, “Remember that you only fall for lies and stories when you really want to.”

I was much younger when I worked at Ray Crowder’s than when I worked for Baroid and much more anxious to fit in.  But there was just so much to learn and none of it was intuitive, especially with respect to the construction, features, and use of caskets, which were available in a bewildering array of styles, materials, and colors.

I mean, there was everything from the cardboard caskets used in cremation to inexpensive wooden boxes to way high-end hermetically sealable caskets from which you could draw all the air and hopefully counter the influences of time and nature.  With the exception of the cardboard units, every casket had a fabric lining of some sort with a wide range of colors to choose from.  On the high end were caskets lined in silk of varying quality.  Just one price step down were caskets lined in satin, also of varying quality, and at the bottom at near fire sale prices were caskets lined with linen or cotton.

Whatever features were available, batting made from one material or another was used to stuff the interior and create a pillowing effect in all but the least expensive of caskets.  These days, batting may be made of any number of materials, including polyester foam.  But back then, the most common batting material was fine wood shavings (excelsior), most widely used for packing fragile things for shipment in crates or barrels.

And that’s where the pranking opportunity abides.

People come in different sizes and caskets for adults are designed to accommodate all but the most extremely tall and the batting can be manipulated for fit.  So, I was sent out one evening at around 7:00 PM to retrieve from another funeral home the specialty device used for compacting the batting at the head and foot which they had borrowed and not returned.

I was to bring back something that I didn’t know didn’t exist – a casket stretcher – in what I’d call a hand-off prank.

As soon as I left Ray Crowder’s they called the funeral home they’d sent me to and told them I was headed their way.  On arrival at that second funeral home, they told me they were sorry but the Ray Crowder folks must have forgotten giving them permission to loan it to yet another and gave me directions.  They, of course then called to tell that third funeral home I was coming.

I was in dogged pursuit and hellbent on not returning without that damn casket stretcher and my search went on until it was brought to a halt by a very big and very angry guy who didn’t appreciate being awakened at 2:00 AM and told me what was going on.

And I’m standing out in the early morning cold thinking, “Ah.  So desu ka.” and becoming now  hellbent on turning the tables.

But how?

I had to bring back something I could Bierplausibly say I thought was what was wanted and what should I see in the covered driveway of that last funeral home but a then costly and indispensable tool of the trade – a folding bier I could easily lift, in both senses of the word.

I mean, it stretches don’t it?

Later that morning, with the bier not yet revealed, I was telling the Ray Crowder crew all I’d gone through trying to get their stretcher back when, as they were laughing their asses off nearly to the point of rolling on the floor, they got a call from someone who had an immediate need for a bier and wanting to know if that flat-bellied kid they’d sent over had taken theirs.

Vengeance may not be mine, folks, but I found it sweet nonetheless…