Pioneer Natural Gas Company hired me as a laborer at $275.00 a month. I think my official job description may have been welder's helper. Jobs of any kind were hard to find and for a guy just married, without a college degree good paying jobs were scarce. I was glad to have a job.
A welder's helper's main assignment was going out on a welding truck and doing whatever the truck foreman wanted done. This consisted of putting 4 X 4 wooden skids across the ditch and lining the pipe joints up end to end on the skids. Then, with a big pipe wrench, turning the pipe slowly as the welder welded. When the welder backed up, the helper jumped in to brush the slag off the weld.
When the welding was done it was time to hook up the air compressor and look for leaks. Then came the fun part. One helper lifted the pipe on his shoulder while an other one pulled the skids and the pipe dropped into the ditch. This turned into hard work when the pipe was three or four inches in diameter.
Of course the helper was responsible for all the pick and shovel work the ditcher couldn't get to. This was hard work but out in the field it wasn't too bad. The sandy soil usually wasn't too hard packed, but in the alleys in town it was a different story.
When connecting a new service to a home, the helper's job was to dig the bell-hole down to the main line, and after the welder connected a nipple onto the line, the helper connected a boring tool onto the nipple and drilled a hole in the main.
Then came the interesting part, unscrewing the drill while standing on your head in the bell hole with natural gas spewing up your shirt while connecting a cap on the quickly as possible.
I remember once having to dig a ditch with a pick and shovel, about forty inched deep all the way across a hard packed alley, a distance of about twenty feet. The engineer who made the map showed the gas main as being on the wrong side of the alley. The soil was rocky and hard packed. This was on one of the hottest days of the summer.
We had a big backhoe, but it was out on another job, and besides, it seemed to be the helper's job to do the hand digging. This was our job, they had another man hired to operate the backhoe.
One winter we were in the midst of a West Texas norther, and the ground had been soaked with rain and snow and then the temperature had dropped to well below zero and stayed there for about a week. The ground was frozen solid several inches deep and we were called out to fix a gas leak in an alley.
This was in Amarillo where the locals claim only a barbed wire fence stands between them and the North Pole to protect them from the cold. And they say two wires of this fence are down most of the time.
For this job they brought out a little backhoe. The full sized backhoe was not available, so they brought a little Fordson tractor with a back hoe mounted on it out. The man who usually operated it was somewhere else this morning, probably in a warm coffee shop somewhere. The boss called for a volunteer to operate the little backhoe, and I responded.
I had never been on a backhoe before, but I considered myself reasonably intelligent and I had watched other men operate them, it couldn't be too difficult. Besides, it would give me a chance to show the boss I could do more than just pick and shovel work.
I maneuvered the little Fordson into position and put down the Stabilizer legs and got ready to dig.
My first few attempts at digging into the frozen turf only resulted in the bucket bouncing like it was striking concrete and the back end of the tractor coming completely off the ground, but I didn't break the surface.
I began to get advice from the boss who was staying in his warm pickup. He probably had no more experience with a backhoe than I did, but I was determined to make a go of this job. It is not in my nature to give up easily. There was always the hope of showing them I could handle more responsibility and, maybe get a promotion and a raise.
I began raising the bucket and bringing it down hard, trying to make it hit in the same spot each time in hopes of chipping the frozen ground like a block of ice. Sure enough after a while I began to see a little indention in the ground. I hooked the teeth of the bucket into this dent and pulled the lever which operated the stick back, but instead of pulling up a chunk of ground the tractor went sliding forward, the stabilizer legs not holding on the frozen ground.
I tried again. The boss man yelled, "curl the bucket!." I pulled the stick back toward the tractor and while holding pressure on it, curled the bucket at the same time. Nothing happened so I started working the hydraulic levers back and forth hoping to break the chunk of icy ground. Instead of hearing the ice crack, I heard a loud spewing sound and hydraulic fluid sprayed all over the place. I had busted a hydraulic hose.
The boss was not very happy with me as a backhoe operator, and when a search proved a replacement hose could not be found anywhere in town, guess who got the privilege of operating the pick in the pick and shovel detail which followed. I was glad the ground was only frozen ten to twelve inches deep. Operating the pick along with my frustration and anger at not getting the job done kept my blood circulating and I didn't freeze to death. It took the rest of the day to fix the leak.
This was the last time I was invited to operate a backhoe for Pioneer Natural Gas Company.