Monday, August 23, 2004

Fingers 2: July 3, 2000

AS I WAS SAYING, we got behind because of one of the little known metereological phenomena that occurs in central Oklahoma: it always, always rains the week before what should be a three day weekend. This in essence fucks up any chance of a long weekend those of us in the landscape industry might have, unless you work for Total Environments, in which case you don't know what a holiday is to begin with.

More specifically, the City of Nichols Hills has a 4th of July parade every year. This is a big fucking deal, as you can imagine, and woe betide the mowing contractor who doesn't have all his Nichols Hills yards mowed by the night before the parade. And if you're the mowing contractor who actually does all the parks for the City, you might as well hang up your mowing shoes if you screw that up.

So that explains why, on Monday, July 3, we were out bustin' our collective humps trying to get this shit done.

See, my boss has a weird issue with July 4th. He refuses to have anybody work on that specific holiday. Now, I can understand this to a degree, but really--it's the one summer holiday that doesn't really get jerked to one end of the weekend to another, so in our cases, we'd much rather have off Labor Day or Memorial Day, and just pretend like the 4th didn't happen.

[and no, we don't take fucking Cinco de Mayo off]

But since it's not really our choice, we suffer through as best we can. Seems like when Bill Clinton was president, we were always getting the shaft, with the holiday falling on, like, a Wednesday or Thursday or Tuesday or something. That generally meant that we worked the Saturday before, the Saturday after, and every day but the Fourth in between. It sucked.

Furthermore, The Fat Man was actually Out Of Town, so I was in the rather unpleasant situation of enforcing this rather ridiculous work schedule. Of course, none of the amigos really gave a damn, but I had a minor riot on my hands with a couple of the white boys, specifically Rojo and The Kid.

For those of you not familiar with Oklahoma stoner culture, 3 day weekends are holy things, almost as much for the opportunity to get self-righteously huffy with the evil boss who makes you work on one of those days (or even late on the day before) as for the actual cheap-beer-and-hot-dogs-at-some-overcrowded-lake celebration of whatever we're supposed to be celebratin'. These celebrations always look the same, Gentle Reader, and I won't go into it now because they aren't really pertinent to the story, except inasmuch as Rojo was dead set that he and The Kid should have a four day weekend.

Not to be. So they started early, and drank their Coors all weekend, and came in all strung out on Monday morning.

Grand Boulevard in Nichols Hills is a nice big park--not Central Park, mind you, but still pretty freakin' nice. The only problem is that it contains, running right smack dab down through the middle, a large drainage canal. The canal is about 15 feet deep, 3/4 of a mile long, and the sides aren't sheer, but pretty close to it. It's obviously too steep to mow, and it's a real bitch to weedeat, but that's what you've got to do.

[Years ago I figured out that the best way to do it was to set two crews on it, one on each side, and put a case of beer down at the other end. Whoever finished their side first got the beer. Tell me I'm not management material.]

We also had several crews out mowing yards in that area, since we were way behind from the rain the week before. I try and make it a habit on Saturdays or odd work days (like this one) to grab a crew and buy them lunch, and I was just returning to the shop from doing this when I got a panicked call from one of the guys.

To this day I can't tell you if he was speaking Spanish or English. Leobardo didn't really know any English, but my Spanish isn't that hot, either, and we understood each other with a clarity you only find once the adrenalin gets flowing. It's one of those calls you do NOT want to get, and you know it from the first word out of the other guy's mouth. Something was wrong, and I was out the fucking door before I even had time to think.

"Grenas, come quick! Accidente!" Fuck, fuck, fuck. I've been on the other end of some bad radio calls, and I've been on site with some pretty gnarly injuries, but I'd never heard panic like this. I was out the door, folks.

I was about, what, 10 miles from the site? About 2 miles in I just called a fucking ambulance, which I've never, ever done, but this sounded bad--very, very bad, judging from the freaked out tones in Rojo's voice when he called me back. He wasn't saying anything terribly coherent, but I could gather that he was basically having to hold The Kid down in the truck seat, and I could hear The Kid screaming at the top of his lungs. Crying, shrieking "oh god oh god oh god," and Rojo shouting at him to be calm, be cool, everything will be OK.

Yeah, I probably broke a few laws getting there.

When I arrived, things didn't look any better. There were nine guys standing, watching the cab of one of our trucks, pale and silent. I could see blood on the white paint of the cab, and a couple of pair of work boots sticking out the driver's side. And I could hear that horrible, high pitched screaming--the screaming of someone who had completely and utterly given over any semblance of control.

I don't know what I would have done if Rojo hadn't been there before me. I know what I'd like to think I'd have done, but Rojo had it done before I even got out of my car. I approached the open door of the trcuk.

The inside of the truck was an abbatoir. There was blood everywhere, the door lintel was slick with it, there were sprays of blood on the windshield, dashboard, and bloody handprints on the seat and steering wheel. There was more blood than I've seen anywhere outside of a movie. Rojo was up in the cab, squatting on The Kid's belly to hold him down. Rojo's shirt was off, and wrapped around The Kid's right hand, but it was soaked through and I took mine off as soon as I saw that. The Kid saw the flash of white and focused on me long enough to recognize who I was.

He started to apologize to me, about fucking up and ruining the tractor and getting hurt and causing problems, and held out his hand to me, which is when we found out that his good hand wasn't good at all, but broken in a couple of places, and I took it and told him it was going to be OK, and to calm down, and everything's going to be fine. I've got not a lick of training at this, folks, but I know from freaked out, even if it is "just a bad trip." And I'm a pretty good liar, too, because one look at this situation and any idiot would know nothing was ever going to be alright for him again.

I tried to crawl up in the cab with them, and slipped on the bloody door lintel (that's gonna leave a mark), and then got to watch as the ambulance cruised by, one street too far to the north. I swore in such a manner that made a lot of the amigos go back to work right then and there, and streaked back to my car to chase it down. Which was fruitless, although it eventually turned back around and found the right spot. I grabbed the remainder of the boys, and got them back to work. Nothing to be done, really, and we were under a serious deadline, after all.

Then I grabbed Rojo and dragged him away. The paramedics had The Kid strapped to a trauma board (I hate those things like you wouldn't believe, but that's yet another tale), and were hustling him to the ambulance. Rojo's tale was a tale that was completely unsurprising, but sort of crystallizes in my head why you've got such things as paramedics and first aid kits.

The Kid was missing a few digits. I'd gathered this from seeing him flail around in the truck--not so much by seeing white bone or pieces of fingers in his lap, but just from the oddly small way his hand looked in the light. After all, it was wrapped in first Rojo's shirt and then mine. Furthermore, he was missing a couple of hunks out of his arm that probably would add up to a decent size steak in one of your finer French restaurants.

What had happened, I gathered, was that (despite my very explicit instructions) Rojo had The Kid driving a tractor that day, and The Kid had rolled the thing into the canal.

Let me describe to you how this came about, and then I'm going to end the post.

First, the mower has a 14 hp diesel engine in it. It has more power than just about anything any of you will ever use to cut grass, and that power is all used to cut a sixty inch swath. The blades don't stop for nothin', no matter how much you screech and holler--nope, unless you hit that kill switch, it's gonna eat whatever you put up in there.

Second, the mower comes equipped with both a roll bar and a seat belt--if both of these are used properly, YOU CAN'T GET HURT. You can't get hurt because you can't get off the machine, and the machine either can't roll completely over or if it does, doesn't roll over on the operator. Imagine doing a big cartwheel--that's what the ROPS and seat belt do for you.

But the ROPS (roll bar) is a pain in the ass, and so is the seat belt. And, when we get right down to it, is the Operator Presence Switch.

The OPS is the crux of the biscuit here, ladies and gents. It's the thing that makes sure you're on the seat when the blades are turning. If you lift your narra ass up off that seat, the switch cuts off and the motor dies. This, in turn, spins down the mower blades.

There's a whole nother screed about how people who can't keep their fingers out from under running mowers should probably not be coddled by manufacturers, but I'm going to try and stay on topic.

The problem with the OPS is twofold. First, it'll start to kill the motor if you bounce off the seat (which isn't really a problem if you're wearing your seatbelt, now is it?), and second, it's a very simple switch to circumvent.

So here's what happened: Rojo and The Kid, sometime during the morning hours, had disabled the OPS. Then, after smoking some fucking DOPE (there's a reason they call it "dope," you know), they got on their respective tractors and took off. The Kid left his roll bar down, and kept his seat belt off (we believe).

Then he got too close to the edge of the canal, and started to slide in. You could see the skid marks of the tires, where he stopped on the slope. Standing there, I could feel the confusion and fear The Kid must have felt. It made me sick--I felt like a failure, I felt like I'd been asleep at the switch with this kid, and now he was paying the price for my inattention.

A paramedic approached us, and asked us if we'd located any "parts." We hadn't, but we hadn't been looking. The three of us slid down the slope, around the mower, and started looking for fingers. There were 3 missing. We found one, the index, I think, but his hands were so thin and fingers so fine, I can't say for sure. They couldn't reattach it. We also found a little bit of just...tissue...lying in the algaed water of the canal, which made Rojo retch a bit, but just hammered home to me the immensity of my failure.

On the way back up, I saw what had happened. The Kid had jumped for it, and stuck his hand out to catch himself before he hit the ground. Unfortunately, the mower rolled (which, again, wouldn't have happened if the ROPS had been up), and before the blades could spin down his entire hand was up in there.

We followed the ambulance to the hospital, and Rojo used my phone to call his family and The Kid's family. They took him into surgery immediately. We sat outside in the waiting room, and I started to feel a little uncomfortable.

See, I'm kind of weird lookin'. I've got long hair, and pierced nipples and a tattoo of a four eyed horse on one arm. No, really, I'm not making this up. I was shirtless, sweaty and a little bloody, probably, and I was running a two million dollar a year landscape maintenance firm off of a Nextel radio in a hospital, which meant I kept having to go outside to use it, so I kept getting strange looks from all the other people around there.

The accident occurred about 1pm. I didn't get a shirt until sometime after 4pm, and he didn't come out of surgery til after midnight. What passed for The Kid's family was there--his mother was in jail in Lawton, his father was dead, and his aunt and uncle were more harm than help every step of the way. The only sane one, I believe to this day, was The Kid's girlfriend.

I went home, after he was tucked in to bed and I got to hear the doctor's prognosis:

index finger was history
middle finger was history
thumb had been reattached, but he didn't hold much hope for it
ring finger had been basically reassembled, minus the end knuckle.
pinky finger was pretty much OK.
forearm was missing quite a bit of meat, but with skin grafts and such would probably look OK eventually.

I went home, but I couldn't sleep. I kept seeing the kid's face in my mind, kept seeing the slaughterhouse that was the inside of that truck. I kept seeing Rojo's crazy green eyes, doing his best to remember what he was supposed to be doing but very, very close to breaking himself.

There's a scene in Apocalypse Now which I flashed to when we were in the cab of that truck. You know when the Air Cav guys are attacking the village (think Die Walkure, that Wagner opera), and they land in the town square? There's a whole bunch of just sheer madness going on, lots of shit being filmed at once, very quickly, and it's supposed to evoke what it's like to be in a real battle situation (whether it succeeds is not a matter for the comment gallery, either)...but there's one part where this guy's lying on the ground and a medic's tending to him, and you don't really see what's wrong with him, all you can hear is him screaming his lungs out and the medic yelling for a stretcher and some other poor guy trying to hold the first guy down, and it's not going to be OK, and that's all I could think about while I was holding this guy's broken hand and holding his legs still so he didn't accidentally knee Rojo in the nuts--how life, or what we think of as life, is so tenuous that it's a wonder we count on making it til nightfall anyway, at least with our bodies and sanity intact.

The Kid got up that morning, probably stepped over his PS2, which he might as well just pawn NOW, right, and headed out the door to come to work, driving like an 18 year old kid who was invincible. Five hours later, he was on his back in a slimy concrete ditch, missing for all intents and purposes his right hand, while the bugs whine in his ears and the clatter of a big diesel motor beat into his head and the hot Oklahoma sun burned his eyes.

You never know, right?


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