Feb 022012


To understand details described in the story click the image to enlarge. © D.M.W. 1978 Woodard Racing Graphics Ltd.

To understand details described in the story click the image to enlarge. © D.M.W. 1978 Woodard Racing Graphics Ltd.

Between 1978 and 1982, within the landscape shown of the backstretch of Colorado National Speedway in the picture to the right, I experienced four life events I will never forget. The first of those events occurred near the pit tower shown close to the left side of the picture.

This is where a fellow driver from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Shawkeet Hindi (The Flying Arabian), ran up over the right rear tire of another car and launched himself at least as high as the platform of the tower. I was somewhere back in the pack, and all I could see was race cars and car parts way up in the air. With that kind of action going on, I dove into the infield along with about fifteen other race cars. That of course created the biggest dust storm you can imagine. How we all managed to miss each other, all the track photographers, corner flagmen, ambulances, fire trucks, tow trucks, and other support vehicles remains a mystery to me. Shawkeet didn’t appear to be hurt much, but it later turned out that his vision had been affected so badly that he could no longer drive a sprinter.

Look closely and you can see dirt clods still flying through the air. This picture was snapped from the infield by fellow racer Don Johnson's father.

Look closely and you can see dirt clods still flying through the air. This picture was snapped from the infield by fellow racer Don Johnson’s father.

Look closely at the far left side of the picture above and you will see a water truck exiting the pit area just beyond the pit tower. It was at about there that I pitched my sprinter into the turn (turn 3) and caught the right rear in a hole that had raveled out due to dry conditions. In those days it wasn’t unusual to run only three or four pounds of air in the right rear tire. It also wasn’t unusual for the tire to roll under the rim when one ran it into a hole, which is exactly what happened here. Tire goes in hole, tire rolls under rim, rim catches hole, up and over she goes! It’s really a rather simple concept.

It was just a minor rollover, but somehow my shoulder straps were too loose and I cracked the tip of my shoulder blade on the seat top when I came down on the first bounce of the wheels. It didn’t take me long to scramble out of the thing though; the fuel cap had come off and I was hanging upside down with methanol pouring into my helmet – I got out of that thing about as fast as anyone has ever vacated a race car.

Just to the right of where you see the small bleachers to the left of the left hand of the girl with the red helmet is where I had parked my pickup truck tight up against the catch fence one evening. Carolyn, me, and a friend named Tom Budde sat on the cab of the truck to watch one of the races take place. During the race, Scott Sauer managed to launch himself up over the right rear tire of a car he was attempting to pass on the outside. This occurred about where the tall pole is located in the picture. He tumbled along the very top of the fence a pretty good ways – passing us along the way. I still remember looking up at the sparks flying off the bottom of the car as it flew along the fence only six or eight feet away. It all happened so fast that Carolyn and I were frozen in position, but Tom bailed off the truck and sprained his ankle a little. Scott managed to wobble out of his racer unhurt, but came along a little later and got an aspirin or two from Carolyn.


#72 Scott Sauer (left background), #4w me (left foreground), #51 Nick Losasso (in the air), #98 Layne Wright (sliding under Nick). Picture by Joe Starr, Track Photographer.

#72 Scott Sauer (left background), #4w me (left foreground), #51 Nick Losasso (in the air), #98 Layne Wright (sliding under Nick). Picture by Joe Starr, Track Photographer.

About where the girl in the red helmet is shown in the picture above is where my car (blue white) is located in the picture to the right. The guy in the air (Nick Losasso) had run up over my left rear (see busted tire) flipped over the top of my roll cage, turning upside down in the process. When he was upside down over me, I still remember seeing his hands flung out beyond the cage (even though he had arm restraints on) – and I thought “Damn! I hope I don’t cut his hands off! Fortunately I missed him. He kept flipping once I was beyond him, and Layne Wright ran under him. Fortunately Layne missed him too. Nick was done for the night. Me too. Nick’s car was pretty much done for good.

Only Joe Starr knows the full story about who the girls shown in the top photograph are. Those interested in purchasing the photo for garage decoration can contact Joe Starr at:

 Posted by at 2:21 PM
Sep 202011

Not so long ago during the hot – hot summer I was made aware of two different sets of young couples living in Denver that took on the task of installing ceiling fans in their homes. Now that is not all that newsworthy of a thing to find out about and I here confess that I didn’t pay much attention to it. I probably wouldn’t have even recorded the news in my memory except for one little thing; somewhere in the course of the conversation I heard about it in, the news deliverer (in this case my wife) informed me that the couples had each installed a “five minute ceiling fan.” I suppose at the time I just thought that those words sounded like an advertising blurb that was a little bit over the top and let it go at that.

My wife Carolyn wasn’t giving me these news reports just to make conversation though, because as things were then running along we were in need of a way to help out the air conditioner in an upstairs room. Now since it appeared to her that these 5 minute gizmo’s were all the rage she decided she wanted one of those things – just had to have it.

Since I have always been completely accommodating to my wife of over forty-five years I accompanied her on a stroll through our local Lowe’s store in search of one of the things. It only took a few minutes to find them stacked up like cord wood in the lighting department. Lots and lots of them. Sure enough, right there in big bold letters on every box was the proclamation: “Hunter – The 5 Minute Ceiling Fan.”

I figured the five minute business sounded pretty optimistic but I also figured that I’m a pretty handy guy – and I own just about every tool that Lowe’s and Home Depot put together sell. With those thoughts in mind I figured I should be able to at least equal the efforts of the troops in Denver.  So we bought one of those bad boys, raced home with it and set to work installing it. We did accomplish a successful installation and I am happy to report that the fan does a right nice job of helping cool the room we installed it in.

It comes to my mind that others might want to install one of the things, and it is my belief that we all carry with us some responsibility to help out and advise our fellow travelers through life’s experiences from time to time. To that end, and for your edification, please read on.

The 5  Minute Ceiling Fan Chronicles

Station wife with cell phone in (lighted) upstairs bedroom where fan is to be installed and call her while standing by breaker box in garage. 5 Minutes.

Call dropped – recall – review aggravating phone issues. Flip breakers off and back on one by one until advised that light in subject installation room is extinguished. Success realized on the next to last breaker. 5 Minutes.

Gather up hand-full of tools: pliers, two or three screwdrivers, couple of wrenches that “look about right” etc. 5 Minutes.

Open and unpack fan box on kitchen table, remove wrapping and perform cursory inspection of components. 5 Minutes.

Review documentation: warranty card, warning labels, flip through installation instructions. 5 Minutes.

Find good starting place about one-third of the way into the instruction manual. Material prior to one-third point appears to be elementary or not applicable. Begin assembly. 5 Minutes.

Drop screw – reach to pick it up – helpful wife does same. Screw ends up inside the inaccessible motor housing of the fan. Smile with slight grimace, ponder best way to extract. 5 Minutes.

Trip to garage to get pen extension magnet in order to retrieve errant screw. 5 Minutes.

Screw retrieved. Resume assembly. 5 Minutes.

Unrecognized part and procedure called for. Review manual – discover two pages stuck together just prior to the page actually started on. 5 Minutes.

Rehabilitate current assembly with consideration given to problem experienced due to previously unrecognized “part and  procedure” oversight. 5 Minutes.

Trip to garage to retrieve ladder. Take down existing light fixture, take to garage and put in designated “I might need that someday” space. Bring back power screwdriver, screwdriver bit, and screw to drive through existing hole in old (wobbly) ceiling box and on into ceiling joist so as to firmly secure same. 5 Minutes.

Trip to garage, get wire stripping tool due to failure to acquire same on first as well as other garage expeditions previously described. Straighten, clip and strip old wires. 5 Minutes.

Attempt mounting of fan ceiling plate with 3” screws provided – discover (needed) hole in box is occupied by screw previously set in “secure wobbly box” step above. Curse mildly, remove screw blocking hole. 5 Minutes.

Secure green ground wire to completely ungrounded existing box. Token gesture. Mount ceiling plate to ceiling with 3” screws provided. 5 Minutes.

Hang fan sideways on handy ceiling plate hooks and attempt wiring solid #12 house wire to #16 stranded wire with wire nuts provided. 5 Minutes.

Trip to garage to acquire wire nuts of sufficient size to accommodate two #12 wires twisted together with one nearly worthless #16 stranded wire. 5 Minutes.

Install light assembly onto fan assembly – no trouble – wiring modules clicked right together. Insert screws to hold light assembly to fan motor. 5 Minutes.

Wife stands on way too soft bed and attempts to swing fan up into position so as to allow me to insert screws through fan assembly and into ceiling plate – entirely unsuccessful. 5 Minutes.

Change places – wife to occupy ladder, me to stand on bed and reattempt previous step. Even more unsuccessful. 5 Minutes.

Wife travels to kitchen to acquire broom so as to hold fan up into position with broom handle. Nearly successful, broom slips – leaves paint marks on new fan. 5 Minutes.

Instruct wife in the art of holding broom with elbows locked into waist so as to avoid slippage. Wife adopts proper stance / posture – screws installed – success. Slip ceiling trim ring up into place. Trim ring falls down for unknown reason. Try again – turn left and right until it seems like it will hold. 5 Minutes.

Mount “clip on” fan blades onto fan drive arms. Install light globes, insert bulbs, snap pull chain extensions into place. 5 Minutes.

Go to garage, call wife, converse to codify procedure  for discovering  proper combination of pressing and releasing wall switch (rheostat) and  pulling of light and fan chains to test. Flip breaker – ask if any smoke is emanating from machinery. Negative response. Run previously discussed procedure again. Ask if any smoke is showing up – now. Negative response again. Continue procedure until proper combination is hit upon to make blades spin and lights illuminate. Success on all counts – no wobble – ignore blade balance procedure. 5 Minutes.

Clean paint marks off of new fan, wash and bandage hands and fingers, pick up tools. 5 Minutes.

Total time: two hours  and . . . . 5 Minutes.


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 Posted by at 5:30 AM
Apr 292010
Old Vicksburg Bridge. Open span over the navigation channel is 825 feet. High water covers a small sandy beach on the west side of the river. The total shoreline to shoreline width at this point is no less than 3/4 of a mile. The current is very swift. This picture is a copyrighted work of Jim Frazier and is used under the principle of creative commons.

The Old Vicksburg Bridge. The current passing through the 800' wide navigation channel lying within the 825' open span is very swift. This is evidenced by the current eddies that can be seen downstream of the span piers. For a better view you can click on the picture to enlarge it. This picture is a copyrighted work of Jim Frazier and is used under the principle of creative commons.

1965 and 1966 often found me as a backseat passenger in a Ford Station Wagon traveling through and all around the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. At the time I was employed as a Rodman for a survey crew operated by Southern Natural Gas Company headquartered in Birmingham Alabama.

Interstate Highway construction was going on in a big way all over the United States at that time and we were often called upon to go to a site here or there to survey the location of one of our existing gas lines, return to Birmingham and draw up a map showing the highway plans superimposed upon it. This was done so that decisions could be made about how the gas line could be moved one place or another or lowered a sufficient amount to accommodate the road that was to be built above or near it.

So it was that in the fall of 1966 we were given the task of locating gas lines that passed through a levee for the Mississippi River a few miles into the eastern edge of Louisiana, directly west of the City of Vicksburg Mississippi.

The proposed route for I-20 through that region called for a new bridge to be built just south and close alongside the old combination highway and railroad bridge over which automobile traffic flowing along US 80 traveled. The old bridge is now closed to automobile traffic but remains in use today by the Kansas City Southern Railway carrying traffic across Louisiana, and into and out of Metropolitan Vicksburg Mississippi.

It was directly beside this old bridge that I stood on a small sandbar strewn with rocks, driftwood, and other stranded river flotsam, to observe one of the most remarkable feats of human daring and endurance that I have ever witnessed.

The two principal participants in the proceedings were Party Chief Tom McCray and Rodman Keith Wright. In addition to myself, a cast of characters that were primarily observers was: Instrumentman “Skip” Gentle, Instrumentman Jim Brazier, and Rodman Mark Gilliland. I will tell you the story in as understandable a way as I can by proceeding thus:

Most of our crew had met up at Tom McCray’s house in Birmingham early one morning in late September or early October, piled our personal gear and ourselves into the blue Ford company station wagon that was our survey vehicle in that day, and set forth for the work site a few miles into Louisiana. Instrumentman Skip Gentle met up with us somewhere in the Birmingham area so that he could travel in caravan with us in a separate station wagon.

In those days, with only short sections of the interstate highways in place, a trip from Birmingham to Vicksburg occupied a good part of the day. Our plan was to travel directly to the work site stopping only for necessary breaks along the way and to take lunch and register at a motel once we arrived in Vicksburg. This was so that we could arrive with enough time left before darkness fell in order to reconnoiter the site so to lay a plan for our work activities the following day.

As one can imagine, in a car full of people traveling that far, conversations would go on about a variety of subjects. In this case, on this trip, most of the talk consisted of a lot of verbal jousting with Keith, and most of that was between Keith and Tom.

As I recall Keith was about twenty years old, brand new on the crew, and had never been outside of the state of Alabama. Keith however was rough business, physically and verbally. He was a well built short stocky young man who had been an underground coal mine surveyor. That alone speaks to his physical ability – he was strong and tough.

He could give as good or better than he got verbally. Throughout the trip Tom would throw chiding, sometimes too edgy or seemingly unkind remarks to him having to do with what Tom perceived to be a lack of sophistication about things more worldly than the coal mining community Keith grew up in. Keith wouldn’t back down an inch. He would always come back with some remark or tale to outdo Tom. We never quite knew whether to believe him or not. He was boastful in an almost outrageous kind of way yet he was somehow a very likable person.

Somewhere along the way the subject of the Mississippi River came up. This of course was new fodder for both Tom and Keith. Tom trying to impress upon Keith that he really hadn’t seen a river until he had seen “Big Muddy.” Keith of course holding forth that nothing called a river could be as big as all that, that the Black Warrior River near his home was as big as rivers get and that the Mississippi would be called something other than a river if it were all Tom made it out to be.

And on it went, mile after mile, after mile. Tom not giving up the futility of trying to impress the grandeur of the Mississippi River upon a boy who had never seen any kind of watercourse larger than a relatively small river during a spring flood. Keith throwing everything Tom said back to him in spades, all the while, all of us thoroughly enjoying the verbal sparring every mile of the distance to Vicksburg.

Dakota Minnesota Eastern Locomotive Number 6368 running over the kansas City Southern Railroad leads the SHME manifest off the Old Vicksburg Bridge before it enters Vicksburg Yard. Notice the down-ramp on the right. It is a part of old US 80. Photograph used with the permission of Chris White, Photographer.

Dakota Minnesota Eastern Locomotive Number 6368 running over the kansas City Southern Railroad leads the *Shreveport to Meridian Manifest off of The Old Vicksburg Bridge. Notice the down-ramp on the right. It is a part of old US 80. The small beach alluded to in the story can be seen just left of the bridge on the other side of the river. This view is looking straight west. Photograph used with the permission of Chris White, Photographer.

Sometime during the mid afternoon we arrived on the outskirts of Vicksburg and began our travel thorough the city along US Highway 80, only stopping long enough to register at a motel and also to have a late lunch in the cafe on the premises. Continuing our journey we eventually arrived at the old river bridge earlier spoken about. The bridge had an unusual approach built onto it; one had to pass through an entrance structure and go down a ramp of sorts in order to land upon the level surface of the bridge – some one hundred fifteen feet above the surface of the water.

As Tom made the approach down the ramp, all of the magnificence of the mighty river hove into view. With that Tom exclaimed, “There Keith! What do you say now!” – Keith, quick as a wink shot back, “Huh! I thought I was gonna get to see something – that ain’t nothing but a little old mud puddle, why, I’d swim across that thing if . . .” – He never finished the sentence.

That was far more than Tom McCray could stand. Tom shouted, “I’m gonna shut you up once and for all!” At the same time he was furiously wrestling his billfold out of his back pocket with his right hand while holding the steering wheel with his left. In an instant he, still steering with his left hand but now also clutching his wallet with it, tore some folding money out of it and laid it back over his shoulder onto the top of the seat-back. “There!” he exclaimed, “Put your money where your mouth is!” Keith, not pausing or batting an eye ask, “anybody else?”

Whether additional bets were taken at that time by others in the car or were negotiated later is beyond my memory and knowledge. I know that I did not wager anything at all. This was not necessarily because I had any objection to it on the grounds that the proposed activity was obviously life threatening, though I like to think that had something to do with it. It was probably more because I didn’t have the money.

Our journey continued on across the river and a mile or two farther west until we came to our designated work-site. We spent only a short time there. It was late in the year, the days were short and sundown wasn’t far off. Tom was anxious to get back to the river so that the wager could be carried off.

The Old Vicksburg Bridge can be seen just north of and parallel to modern day I-20 in the southeast quadrant of the picture. Enlarge the picture to see the small dirt lane we drove down to gain access to the river. It is just south of and parallel to Old US-80. The Southern Natural Gas Right Of Way clearing can be seen in the upper center.

If one carefully examines an aerial map of the western approaches of I-20 and Old US 80 to the Mississippi River, parts of the small dirt lane we drove down to gain access to the river can still be seen between the Interstate on the south and the old bridge to the north. Though high water obscures a view of it on the aerial photograph I recently viewed, at the end of the dirt lane was the small sandy beach I earlier alluded to. It was there that we arrived and disembarked from our vehicles just as shadows were at their longest and the sun was only minutes from touching the horizon.

I believe Skip and Jim immediately began skipping rocks as was their custom if any kind of smooth water and a collection of rocks were within a hundred yards of each other. They drifted off a little south along the small beach. I don’t know if they were trying to distance themselves from what was about to happen or if there were just flatter skipping rocks that direction. Tom and Keith ambled off east toward what looked like a good entry point at the waters edge and almost directly under the edge of the bridge high above them. Mark and I hung back, still within earshot, but nearer to the end of the road. This was probably for no other reason than, at least for me, it was usually always a pretty good idea to not interfere with anything Tom was up to.

I distinctly heard Tom say, “There you are big boy, I hope you’re a good swimmer.” Keith responded, “Not really, I can dog-paddle alright but I’ve actually never swam much at all.” With that he kicked off his boots, stripped off his socks and shirt, waded into the shallow water and set off for Mississippi.**


* The term I used, “Shreveport to Meridian Manifest” is properly called “The SHME Manifest” in strict railroading terminology. “Manifest” as it it used in the railroad industry simply means a common, regularly scheduled, freight train made up of different types of rail cars and kinds of cargoes.

**Part II of the story has now been published. You may read about it by clicking the link following. In it you will learn of the outcome of this story, and also discover the eventual fate of Keith Wright, a boy I knew as a friend. Keith Wright and The Mississippi River Part II


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 Posted by at 9:35 AM
Apr 282010

Repeated from part I: I distinctly heard Tom say: “There you are big boy, I hope you’re a good swimmer.” Keith responded, “Not really, I can dog-paddle alright but I’ve actually never swam much at all.” With that he kicked off his boots, stripped off his socks and tee shirt, waded into the shallow water and set off for Mississippi.


Looking west across the Mississippi River from a point on the eastern shore, just south of the Old Vicksburg Bridge. Special thanks to use this photograph go to Janie Fortenberry, Southern Accents Photography, Vicksburg, MS.

Keith’s entry into the water caused Skip and Jim to put aside their rock skipping fun in order to stand and watch along with everyone else. I suppose everyone was watching with the same sense of disbelief that I felt. Daylight was waning fast. As Keith progressed farther and farther east a view of him became more and more difficult, the farther east he progressed, the more our collective feelings turned closer and closer to a sense of foreboding – Tom included.

It pretty quickly became clear that Tom was a worried man, for he had already uttered a statement that I will paraphrase something like this: “I believe the son-of-a-gun is gonna try to do it.” He said it in a nervous, telling kind of way though.

Ultimately he was the one in charge and therefore, at least to the company, responsible for all of us. Because of that there is little doubt that he was questioning his judgement about allowing such an activity to go forward in the first place. He was obviously wavering between letting the activity continue, probably thinking Keith would surely turn back, or to try to call the thing off.

Keith, in the meantime was getting farther and farther away. The water on the western side of the Mississippi is shallow for a long distance offshore at the point we were located north-south along the watercourse. Because of that Keith had been able to wade a very long distance. With the great distance and the closing darkness I never saw him break into an overhand stroke and to this day don’t know if he ever did. For that matter, I still don’t know if he was even capable of swimming that way.

Skip, as I recall was the first to tell Tom that he had better do something to get Keith back before he was sucked into the main channel on the east side of the river. Though Skip was subordinate to Tom he was perhaps unofficially, but certainly recognized by all to be second in command. His directive was enunciated in such a way that Tom had to have taken it as good advice, but with an underlying tone akin to a warning.

At this point Keith was only a small black dot far out into the Mississippi, and though not yet in the main channel, he had drifted considerably downstream. It was now dusk dark, it wouldn’t be more than five or ten minutes before everything was going to be black on the surface. Barge traffic and swift water were the real dangers that Keith was headed towards – and he didn’t have the first idea about either one of them.

Upon Skip’s advice Tom pretty quickly decided to give up the project. Without any discussion at all he turned to me and instructed me to run down the sandbar and call him back if I could. And to tell him that he could have the money by the way. I could holler pretty good and I was as swift as any on the crew. So run I did. I ran, hollering as I went, all the way to the south end of the sandbar which was located just about where the south edge of the I-20 bridge is in this day.

I hollered and hollered and hollered some more. It seemed useless. Keith was no longer in view and possibly as much as a half mile away. I trudged wearily back up the sandbar and reported that I had done all I could but it didn’t look too good.

Tom made a decision for all of us to travel to the east side of the river and do our best to search along the riverbank in case Keith had made it across. We piled into both vehicles, backtracked westerly along the dirt lane until we could get on US 80, then traveled to the east side of the river and turned south on a secondary road that more or less paralleled the river.

Upon arriving some distance south of the bridge we were dispersed individually at rather wide intervals to begin our search. The place I tried to gain access to the river was as steep as any hill I have ever been on, and it was thickly covered with brush, small trees, big trees, thorns, dead-fall of all sizes, and anything else you can think of that one can stumble over – in pitch dark. I didn’t have so much as a pack of matches to see my way. I got as close to the river as I could, stumbling, falling and blundering my way along hollering for Keith. I am sure all of the others encountered the same difficulties.

After awhile we were all summoned back to the road somehow. Our search had been fruitless, something else had to be done.

A plan was laid by Tom and Skip for Skip to travel to the motel we had registered at upon our arrival in town earlier in the day in order to standby for a phone call in case Keith made landfall on the Mississippi side and was able to get to a telephone.

If that event did occur Skip was to call Tom by radio. The case being that both vehicles were equipped with Motorola radios. One of them may have been a permanently mounted kind; whatever the case, at least one of them was of a portable design that was sort of the cell phone of that day. They were the size of an ammunition box and worked quite reliably through a repeating tower system the company maintained. Because of this, Skip was able to standby in his motel room for a telephone call and also to communicate with Tom by radio.

After Skip set out for the motel, we all piled back into the wagon and headed back to the west side of the river on the off chance that Keith had in fact heard my calling and returned to shore. We eventually arrived at the western shore, got out of the car and meandered around a little bit calling for Keith. It was not to be. He was not there.

With that, Tom announced we would travel back to the east side and continue our search – this time farther south than our previous search. This on the theory that we hadn’t properly allowed for the swift current of the river.

This photograph is a "Google Maps Street View." The view is looking south from a point on modern day I-20, almost directly above where we stood on the small sandy beach alluded to in the story. The beach is obscured by high water in this view. It was from this vantage point that we observed the faint outline and lights of the industrial complex on the eastern shore. The facility can be identified here by the stack and rectangular structure just to the left of it. It is about 3-3/4 miles distant. We surmised (though incorrectly) that the river took a sharp bend to the west, and that it would be that point that Keith would most likely make landfall.

We could see a cluster of floodlights and other general lights of what appeared to be a large chemical company or some kind of industrial complex that we estimated to be two or three miles south on the eastern shore. It was there that Tom announced we would search. We all got back into the car and headed to the east side again.

*We crossed the river, turned south, and found our way to the complex we were in search of. As we pulled up to a guard shack at the entrance to the facility a young man stepped out, stripped off a yellow rain slicker that he was wrapped in, handed it to the guard who had loaned it to him, opened the car door, got into the back seat in his still wet jeans and exclaimed, “where’s my $50!”

Tom’s bet had not shut Keith up one bit. As we were riding toward the motel we began to relate our side of the story to him. When we got to the part telling him about how we had gone back and forth across the river, how we had tried to call him back, and that he could have the money and so on, he never missed a beat – he quickly informed Tom that he should be paid double because he had heard me calling, and that he did swim back to shore. When he discovered we weren’t there he had thought he was hearing things and had gone back in and swam all the way across, stopping only to tread water in the main channel while a long train-of-barges went by. And oh by the way, he went on, nobody bothered to tell him about the barges – that those things throw up big waves, and that he was put under several times and thought he might drown before the thing got past him.

Keith's routes. Route number two is nearly four miles long.

Keith Wright, in effect, swam the Mississippi River in the fall of 1966 – twice. And he did it at night. We took his boasting a little more seriously after that.



Keith Wright lost his life in a high speed car crash a few years after these events while attempting a “cannonball” type run along Alabama Highway 52 from Helena to Bessemer. He was attempting to win a bet for a small sum of money.

Tom McCray has been retired from Southern Natural Gas Company for many years and still lives in the Birmingham area.

Skip Gentle is also retired from Southern Natural Gas Company. He too lives in the Birmingham area. He spends his days with his wife and their extended family including daughters and granddaughters of which he his extremely proud. His passion is helping carry out the good works of the Knights of Columbus organization of which he is designated as a District Master on the roster of Alabama State Officers.

Jim Brazier, who was once recruited right out of high school by a major league baseball team passed away in 2008. He was sixty-eight years old.

At last account Mark Gilliland was living in Texas.

*A lot of worried conversation went on between everyone in the car on this second trip to the east side of the river. I suppose it is for this reason that I did not hear radio communication that went on between Skip and Tom sometime between the time we left the west side of the river and the time we pulled up to the guard shack.

It was only through recent correspondence with Skip that I now know that Keith had in fact called him at the motel by land-line from the guard shack and he had in turn called Tom by radio to tell him where we could pick him up.

There is also the possibility that I heard the radio communication at that time and had simply forgotten it. I thought it more important to relate the story to you from the point of view and with remembrances that I have held for many years, rather  than to introduce recently discovered information into my long held memories only to accommodate a purely chronological telling of the story with facts that I may not have then known or had long forgotten.

 Posted by at 5:29 PM
Oct 292009

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Tiger Rattlesnake (Crotalus Tigris). Endemic only to the Sonoran Desert. This snakes venom is the most toxic of all of the North American pit vipers.
Tiger Rattlesnake (Crotalus Tigris). Endemic only to the Sonoran Desert. This snakes venom is the most toxic of all of the North American pit vipers.

 Tony, a Snake, a Stake, and Me.

Just south and west of the City of Kingman Arizona lie the northernmost reaches of one of the great deserts in all of the Americas, the Sonoran Desert. It is a vast desert. Bordered on the north by the Mojave Desert, it extends far south into Mexico, and is there bordered on the east side by the base of the Sierra Madre Mountain Range from which it extends westward, interrupted only by the Gulf of California, to occupy all but the northwestern part of the Baja California Peninsula. Within all of that great desert are several sub-regions, each varying to some degree with different climates, types of plants, and wildlife.

A part of one of those sub-regions is a broad flat desert floor lying south of I-40 between the Mojave Mountain Range to the west, the Granite Mountain Range to the east, and a few scattered mountains to the south and southeast that are respectively called the Little Ajo Mountains and the McCracken Mountains.

The climate is a particularly harsh one, especially in the summertime with daytime air temperatures often exceeding 110 degrees. It is populated with a variety of flora, the principal ones being saguaro cactus, thorn scrub, and creosote bush. As to fauna I am sure there is a wide variety but the only things I recall seeing during the time I was there were birds, buzzards, lizards, a few open range cows, and a particularly unfriendly and venomous species of pit viper: the Tiger Rattlesnake.

It was to this desert that my gunner, Ignacio Antonio Romo and I were sent in the mid summer of 1978 to carry out surveys to mark out placer claim boundaries for uranium finds. At that time energy companies were in a frenzy to make claim to the mineral rights for just about every square inch of available land anywhere that had even the remotest chance of producing economically feasible yields of uranium.

The partial meltdown of reactor number two at the nuclear power generating station known as Three Mile Island had not yet happened, nuclear power was the hot thing of the day, and the energy companies were prospecting for and laying claim to all the uranium rich lands they could.

The practice at the time was for teams of prospecting geologist to go into regions that were likely to contain uranium and identify so called “discovery” locations. Conceptually, the goal was to find a sufficient number of “discoveries” within a given area that would allow them to lay claim to the mineral rights for all of the land in the area so prospected. Claim to these discoveries was made by having as many 600′ X 1,500′ “placer claims” staked out as it would take to blanket the entire area. It was during the staking of one of these claims that I experienced my most dangerous encounter ever with a snake.

Map showing the entire Sonoran Desert. The Arizona Upland Eco Region is shown in yellow. The "X" marks the approximate location of our surveying expedition.

Map showing the entire Sonoran Desert. The Arizona Upland Eco Region is shown in yellow. The "X" marks the approximate location of our surveying expedition.

Our daily procedure was to leave Kingman Arizona at about 3:00AM, travel along westbound I-40 to the vicinity of the old Ford Motor Company Yucca Proving Grounds, then exit the Interstate, and take a dirt road that ran for many miles in a southeast direction alongside the western base of the Granite Mountain Range, eventually arriving on the job site at just about sunup. By doing this we were able to put in about five hours work on the ground before the fierce summer temperature forced us to give up for the day and return to our motel in Kingman.

On most mornings, by the time we actually set to the work of running out a claim boundary line the sun would be well above the horizon and the temperature would have already started its steady climb to the one hundred degree plus mark. This worked out reasonably well for us when it came to dealing with the tiger rattlesnakes known to populate the area in large numbers. The reason for this is because tiger rattlers are primarily nocturnal creatures so they do most all of their hunting for prey at night, and seek shelter from the blazing sun during the day by crawling into or under some natural structure such as a rock crevasse or rock out-cropping.

At first thought this kind of behavior, unlike that of the copperhead I told you about in episode II, might seem to work out very well for a surveyor out stomping around in the desert. That is until you come to that part about crawling under some natural shelter during the daylight hours.

Tiger rattlers are not known to inhabit a flat desert floor very much, preferring instead to survive and carry on their society in desert areas that are populated with mounds and small hills made up of protruding bedrock and scattered boulders of varying sizes. As it happened, these were just exactly the kind of geological formations Tony and I were surrounded with while running a survey line close to the base of the Granite Mountain Range about 9:00 in the morning on a summer day in 1978.

Our practice during the running of one of these lines was to take turns between *head chaining and tail chaining by exchanging roles at every 600′ interval. By the use of a 300′ fiberglass measuring tape our practice was that the head chainman would carry a cutting tool and only one stake with him, and he would only carry that if the next point to be set was an actual stake point. If the next point was only an intermediate measurement point he did not carry a stake – he would simply tie a small strip of surveyors marking flagging onto a bush at that point. After this was done the tail chainman would “come ahead” to remain at the stake or intermediate measurement point that had just been set.

By the tail chainman working that way he was able to direct the head chainman onto the intended alignment by the use of a hand compass. Once he had directed the head chainman onto line he would gather up all of the remaining stakes that were to be set and walk ahead to where the head chainman was standing. If the next point 300′ up line was to be a stake rather than an intermediate measurement point he would hand him the needed stake.

By alternating this way, the turn of events was that Tony had just set the next to last stake for the line we were running. It was now my turn to go forward 300′ and tie a piece of flagging onto a bush to signify an intermediate measurement point. Tony had in his possession the only remaining stake to be set.

A sunrise like this is a daily occurrence in the Sonoran Desert. Temperature at this time of the morning is usually quite chilly. Temperatures reaching or exceeding one hundred degrees are only a few hours away though!

A sunrise like this is a daily occurrence in the Sonoran Desert. Temperature at this time of the morning is usually quite chilly. Temperatures reaching or exceeding one hundred degrees are only a few hours away though!

The stake Tony had just set was positioned at the base of a flat boulder about two or two and one half feet high that was protruding out a foot or so from beneath a small hill of several other boulders perhaps ten or twelve feet high. It provided a small ledge to step up on to gain purchase to crawl and climb on up, nearly vertically, to the top of the little hill of boulders. By a combination of rough measurement and estimation we accounted for the short horizontal distance from the stake to a point on the top of the little mound. The plan was for Tony to then move up to that point to direct me on along the survey line from that vantage point to fill out the remaining distance.

I placed my foot upon the little ledge and stepped up, coming to an almost off balance standing position with my chest almost touching part of the boulder pile in front of me, with my eyeballs peering into a cavity under a boulder that contained another set of eyeballs not even two feet away staring straight back at me that belonged to a really big, coiled up, buzzing, tiger rattlesnake!

Little did I realize it at that moment in time but I was actually as safe as I was going to be provided I didn’t do something really stupid, for if the snake had felt sufficiently threatened it would have struck me in the face the instant my head popped up into its view. Take notice of the phrasing of that last sentence reader. I said, “I was as safe as
I was going to be provided I didn’t do something really stupid . . . .”

What is it, what is it, what is it, about the human psyche that makes people like me and my friend Mark Gilliland, the copperhead killer from so many years before, see a snake and think: “there is a snake and it needs killing in the worst kind of way.”

Still watching the snake and listening to its continuously buzzing rattler I very slowly eased my head back and made a barely perceptible turn while slowly extending my hand toward Tony, who had upon hearing the snake positioned himself so that he could also see it. With my arm extended, my hand held out, and my lips moving far less than the most skilled ventriloquist I whispered, “Tony give me your stake.”

Tony replied: Humph – you ain’t gettin’ my damn stake!

Realizing that then was not a good time to engage in conversation, I slowly stepped down from my perch and out of striking range of the snake. Tony, rapidly chewing a piece of gum as he seemed to almost always do, in a moderate tone said, “we’ll just let that snake live – he ain’t hurtin’ nothin’.

I occasionally think of those parting words uttered by Tony, and every time I do I realize that one could make a pretty good argument about whether it was me that let the snake live or if it was the other way around.


Surveyors "Gunter's Chain." This measuring tool is made up of 100 "links", each link being 0.66' long.

Surveyors "Gunter's Chain." This measuring tool is made up of 100 "links", each link being 0.66' long.

*It is likely evident from the surrounding context that the terms “head chainman” and “tail chainman” refer to the position of the men along the line being measured. The term “chainman” may not be so evident however. Surveyors of a bygone day used a measuring device that was called a “chain.” This was because it looked similar to a common porch swing chain, only with very elongated links.

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