Early one Saturday morning in August of 1965, my father left home for work.
He went to work on a Saturday because he needed the extra money. Nearly a year before, an evening of poorly planned passion in the front seat of his Chevy Corvair resulted in my entry into the world that March. My father’s college job as an oil field roughneck suddenly had to support a family, so when two friends of his offered him a fill-in spot on their oil-storage-tank cleaning crew, to take the place of third friend who was ill, he jumped at the chance.
He was 20 years old.
Oil tanks are more than just passive reservoirs. They are machines full of pipes and valves that require periodic cleaning and servicing. Over time the bottoms of the tanks fill with a foot or more of a viscous sludge, comprised of heavy fractions and waxes from the oil and dirt and rust of the tank itself. Too thick to pump, the sludge must be raked, steamed and sprayed out. As an oil-field job, it is messy but routine.
Their work site was a isolated tank about 15 miles northwest of Lovington, New Mexico. There was nothing around for miles but knee-high mesquite scrub and vultures. In an era before cell phones or even cheap radios, they were on their own.
All three men were careful and competent. They had to be. The oil fields do not forgive the reckless. Both nature and the technology kill the careless. Both his friends were older, with at least a decade’s worth of experience each under their belts. My father manned the cleaning equipment on the truck outside the tank while the other two donned waders and simple but effective activated-charcoal masks and went inside the tank.
Within a couple of minutes, my father realized something was wrong. Perhaps the lines they were pulling into the tank stopped moving or perhaps he heard the splash of them failing into the oil sludge. Whatever clued him, he realized his friends were in trouble and although lacking a mask he went in after them.
He pulled one man from the tank and laid him , dripping with oil sludge, down on the yellow sand outside. Unbeknown to my father, the man was already fatally poisoned. Then he went back into the tank after his second friend.
He never came out.
The bodies of all three men were found that evening when they failed to return on schedule. The bodies of my father and the second man were found less than three feet from the access hatch inside the tank. All three had been killed by a freak concentration of carbon monoxide within the tank.
Carbon monoxide is common in oil fields but it almost always occurs in conjunction with carbon dioxide. It is immediately obvious when someone cracks a tank and finds it filled with carbon dioxide because it causes a burning sensation in the lungs. They just let the tank air out for while and come back later. Carbon monoxide, however, is colorless, odorless and produces no distress when breathed. It permanently binds to the hemoglobin molecules in the red blood cells making them incapable of carrying oxygen. Victims of carbon monoxide poisoning never feel suffocated, they just grow strangely weak and dizzy before passing out. Somehow, a near pure stream of carbon monoxide must have seeped up with the oil as it was pumped from the earth. The men’s activated-charcoal masks would not have stopped it. Nothing save a completely sealed air source would have. The concentrations must have been very high. They were overcome in the time it took them to walk twenty feet inside the tank. My father was most likely fatally dosed while pulling the first man out
The oil sludge dyed their skin beyond the ability of the mortician’s art to disguise. My grandmother said that at their funerals their skin looked like dark stained mahogany, the same color and texture as their coffins.
My father’s death has only a mild emotional resonance for me. Only an infant when he died, I know him only from pictures and family stories. I feel the same towards him as I do other relatives who passed before I really knew them. The manner of his passing, however, has taught me a lesson about heroes.
I wonder about his last minutes. I imagine him standing at the oval access hatch, squinting into the stygian blackness and wondering what could have happened to incapacitate two experienced roughnecks. With no one else near, he would have known that any rescue was up to him. He must have suspected that whatever got his friends might get him as well, yet into the tank he went. I wonder if as he pulled the second man towards that oval of light he realized he would not make it.
I wonder if he knew that he had failed.
I think most heroes are failures. Conventionally, we think of heroes as being those who succeed in accomplishing some significant good. Yet, to be worthy of heroism, the act itself must be difficult to achieve. If anyone could do it we would not single out those that do. It follows that much of the time acts of heroism must fail. I wonder how many stories of valor are lost to the winds in burning buildings, crashing planes or foxholes because although the people there acted with great heroism, they ultimately failed to save those around them. Those who receive accolades are but a subset of all the heroes that are.
The heroes who fail reveal to us the true cost of heroism. Without their dark example, we would never truly feel the enormity of the risk undertaken by those heroes who succeed. They instruct and ennoble us all.
My father was fated to have time to teach me but one lesson: The meaning of your life ultimately springs from the choices you make and not the success of those choices. Choose to act heroically and, succeed or fail, you become a hero.
It’s a short lesson, but a good one and I treasure it.