I’m not sure how I first met Bob, but it was either as a sawmill or Christmas tree customer. Bob was tall and lanky, sort of like Abe Lincoln, but still with enough muscle that he’d probably be just as good at splitting rails. His hair and beard were reddish, and he wore glasses. He always had a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face, and his complexion was naturally ruddy, I think, but it was made more so from years of working outdoors every day. You see, Bob was a well tender in the local oil fields—whenever I saw him, he was always in a flatbed pickup with a four-wheeler and a bunch of gas cans in the back. There was often a layer of red clay sticking to the two vehicles. I’m usually not good with names (as opposed to faces), but I always remembered Bob’s name because it was so similar to the little game bird that I used to hear as I was growing up on the farm (they’re extinct around here, now). His last name was actually Whited, not White, but the memory trick always worked and I could remember the “D.”
For those who don’t know, you have to keep the oil pumped off natural gas wells or it eventually plugs off the flow of gas. That’s why you see “nodding donkeys” (oil pumps) and oil tanks scattered around oil and gas country. In the old days, the pumps were powered by big one-lung engines that burned natural gas from the wells. Somewhere along the line, they switched over to Briggs-type engines that could be run on gasoline and switched out easily when they had too many problems to fix in the field. I thought about applying for such a position once, but figured that I wasn’t enough of a mechanic to fix an engine at 110 degrees in the shade or at 15 below zero in the howling wind, or any OTHER temperature for that matter. It takes a special breed to do that kind of work, and I got the impression that I might not have the skills required.
I pretty much quit seeing Bob once I quit sawmilling and selling Christmas trees. It was probably 15 years ago when I bumped into him at the gas station one of the last times. We said hello and called each other by name, and had exchanged a few words, when the female clerk spoke to him and called him “Bill.” After just enough conversation to tell me that they were well acquainted, he turned to leave and spoke to me again. I asked him if his name was actually Bill and he grinned and answered to the affirmative. I asked why he hadn’t told me 20 years ago that I was using the wrong name. His eyes twinkled as he said, “I didn’t figure it mattered; I knew who you were talking to.” I vowed to try to do better; we laughed, and then went our separate ways. I think I’ve only seen him twice since, and I managed to call him by his real name both times. He’s well past retirement age now, so I may never see him again, but I’ll always remember his pleasant nature and that day of surprise.