Jimmy Wayne is still alive.
Not because he is cautious or inclined to be careful. He is just inexplicably lucky in spite of being accident prone and suffering from extremely poor judgement.
So he got a job that involved using a chain saw and a machete.
The job of which I speak is that of Tail Chainman on a deep woods survey crew. Such a crew consists of four people; the Crew Chief, the Instrument Man, the Head Chainman, and the Tail Chainman.
The relationship of the four is what I call “downhill”. The Crew Chief makes decisions. He might look at the Instrument Man and say, “One of y’all is going to have to wade out into that swamp and cut that tree down.” The Instrument Man then looks at the Head Chainman. The Head Chainman then looks at the Tail Chainman. The Tail Chainman ain’t got no one to look at.
I’m Wayne, Head Chainman. I was on the crew way before Jimmy Wayne so I’m well aware that even when he is not the one in danger, he attracts it like a magnet draws metal filings.
Jimmy Wayne is a pure country boy. He is simple. He is honest. He is colorful. I once heard him say, “I ain’t got no truck with cities. There ain’t no point living somewhere you can’t take a piss off your front porch.” If I said that it would be humor. When Jimmy Wayne said it, he was just making a point.
I guess the best way to tell Jimmy Wayne’s story is with examples of his exploits. I know you won’t believe them, but they’re all true. I know because I was there. As my GrandDad used to say, “Here’s how the cow ate the cabbage.”
~ ~ ~
Jimmy Wayne and I were finishing up the task of tying the flagging on the stakes and lathes marking the iron pin we had just put down in the rural Texas field, when Jimmy Wayne said, “I don’t like the look in that bull’s eye.”
I thought my response was clever, “What are you, the bull whisperer?”
“You can stick around if you want, but I’m outa here.”
He said that while grabbing the remaining lathes and hightailing it toward the barbed wire fence about fifty yards away. I turned to see what had him so agitated and found myself looking into the eyes of a huge Holstein bull about forty yards away. He was looking at me while calmly and steadily walking my direction. He wasn’t snorting or pawing at the ground like the cartoon bulls do.
“He doesn’t look mad to me.”
“You own any bulls?”
“You know I don’t.”
“You know I do.”
This was typical Jimmy Wayne logic. It was kind of hard to refute. I grabbed my stake bag, put my hammer in my belt, and followed Jimmy Wayne fast enough. By that I mean I was moving faster than the bull.
After I climbed the barbed wire fence and felt safe on the other side, I checked out the Holstein. He was still walking slowly towards me. He was still looking at me.
When he got to the fence he never broke stride, but he did break the fence. It stretched like a guitar string and made a sound like one when it snapped. One end coiled around the bull’s legs. He didn’t care. He was still moving at a steady walk. He was still looking at me.
Maybe my earlier statement about Jimmy Wayne lacking good judgement wasn’t always true. When I looked for him he was about fifty yards away, climbing into the Chevrolet Suburban that was like a second home to us.
I ran to the Suburban and hopped in. When I looked out the rear window, the bull was still walking towards us. He was still looking at me.
You will never convince me that bull would have had such a desire for me without Jimmy Wayne’s presence. Just saying.
~ ~ ~
Late one afternoon, we reached a big creek. It was full of deep running water and about thirty feet across. On the other side, right at the high bank, was a barbed wire fence covered in vines.
Mike, the Crew Chief, said, “It’s one mile back to the truck and two miles to the nearest road on the other side of the creek. If we could just get a pin in the ground on the other side, we could knock off for the day and just have to walk in tomorrow morning.”
Philip, the Instrument Man, said, “There ain’t no way to get across this creek. Look how deep it is.”
Jimmy Wayne said, “I can get across.”
As he said this he was messing with a very thick poison ivy vine wrapped around the trunk of a huge tree. We all should have said something to discourage this behavior, but it was just so much more entertaining to let it play out.
I guess I might have been guilty of encouraging him when I asked, “How you gonna do that, Jimmy Wayne?” The question implies a reasonable possibility of success.
He cut the vine near the ground and began stripping the offshoots holding it to the tree trunk. Once he had it mostly free, he yanked really hard and got maybe twenty to thirty feet of it loose from the huge trunk. He jerked down hard to test if it would hold his weight. He said, “I can swing across.”
The fact that no one said, “Don’t do it, Jimmy Wayne,” should shame us all. But being around him really was like going to the carnival, so you can understand why we just gathered around for the show.
He prepared himself by shedding everything but his machete, his hammer, a roll of flagging, and a stake bag with an iron pin and three stakes. He pulled back the vine as far as it would go from the creek and took a running start. It was like watching the Three Stooges when I was a kid.
He swung successfully most of the way across the creek, kicked out his feet and embedded his workboots in the tangle of vines on the fence. He was now horizontal above the creek supported by his boots in the fence and his hands on the vine.
This was your basic good news / bad news situation. The good news was he was no longer on this side of the creek and he was still dry. The bad news? We all knew the carnival was about to get interesting.
Jimmy Wayne tried squatting to get a hold of the fence with one hand only to have his toes slip out of the vines. He swung back our way with an unhappy look on his face.
He reached out toward me because I was holding an eight-foot line rod which could be extended to help him to safety. I, however, was emotionally and mentally unprepared to act. Jimmy Wayne came to a stop over deep water and cussed me with flair.
As he tried to swing his feet to get the vine in motion, it came loose from the tree and he plunged into the water. He swam toward us, sputtering, only to hear Mike say, “Don’t swim this way. You’re already wet. Go put the pin in before you swim back.”
~ ~ ~
Jimmy Wayne didn’t like ticks, but they sure liked him. We would climb back into the Suburban after a hard day in the deep woods of East Texas, and Jimmy Wayne would immediately start picking ticks off of himself. I would get itchy knowing I was in for a two-hour ride with a tick-infested Jimmy Wayne.
We kept the crew chief’s briefcase between us in the middle of the back seat, on top of which was a wooden 24” x 18” plywood board with 1/8” lathes nailed around the edge. The board was officially used during lunch to play dominoes, more specifically to play 42, and the lathes served to stop the dominoes from sliding off the board during a shuffle.
But. unofficially, the board was used by Jimmy Wayne to cut the legs off of ticks, and the lathes kept the poor legless bastards from sliding off the board.
He would cut just one leg from one side of the tick and measure the size of the circle it walked. Being a surveyor, he used tenths of a foot, as is proper surveyor etiquette. Then he would experiment.
“Look, Wayne. With just one leg gone, he walks a circle of one foot and two tenths, but if I cut off a second leg, then he only goes eight tenths of a foot.”
“Jimmy Wayne, that’s kinda cruel, don’t you think?”
“Nah, he bit me. He deserves it.”
Philip got interested. “Did you cut off two adjacent legs or did you skip a leg?”
“That’s a good question, Philip. Ouch, another tick is biting me. Give men a few seconds to get a hold of the bastard and I’ll extend my research.”
“He’s biting me on my ass,” Jimmy Wayne said, as he stood up in the back of the Suburban, and, while still doubled over, dropped his pants.”
Mike saw this activity in the mirror and got involved. He seemed to think Jimmy Wayne flashing the other cars on the road violated a rule or two, and objected. Crew Chiefs are like that.
“Damnit, Jimmy Wayne, pull your damn pants up!”
“Just a second, I almost got ahold of the bastard.”
“Jimmy Wayne, did you hear what I said?”
Jimmy Wayne pulled his pants up, sat back down, and proceeded to operate on the tick.
“I’m cutting two legs off this son of a bitch, but it’s gonna be legs one and three on his left side. I used the right side on the first one, so they’ll meet each other as they go around.”
The ticks weren’t screaming, but I felt sorry for’em anyway. I said, “Jimmy Wayne, you know the Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and we go back as critters sometimes. I bet cutting his legs off will get you in line to go back as a tick.”
“That don’t make no sense. Ouch, another one.”
“Jimmy Wayne, keep your pants on.”
“Chill out Mike, this one was behind my ear. I ain’t gonna moon nobody no more. That hurt, you little bastard. I’m gonna cut all his legs off on one side and watch him spin.”
Philip turned sideways in the front passenger seat and watched. “Damn, Jimmy Wayne’s got him a tick circus, Mike. You should pull over and look at this shit. A seven legger on the outside, two six legger’s passing each other inside that, and a spinner in the middle. You could charge admission for this, Jimmy Wayne.”
Jimmy Wayne was quite proud. “I need another one for the middle. I bet if I left him just the front leg on the left side and a middle leg on the right side, I could get him to walk zigzag. Anybody else got any ticks on’em? Help me out here.”
This was the first time in my experience as a surveyor that I saw anyone disappointed they couldn’t find a tick. Jimmy Wayne was frustrated, so he proceeded to cut all the legs off of all his pet ticks and played an odd kind of billiards with them. He was disappointed I didn’t want to play.
“Jimmy Wayne, I you knock one of those damn things into my lap, I’m gonna be pissed.”
“They probably can’t bite without legs.”
“How the hell do you figure that? You think they bite with their legs? I ain’t no tickologist, but that is unlikely.”
“Nah, they don’t bite with their legs, but I bet they use’em to latch on or something, so’s they can sink their teeth in.”
Philip had a big grin as he said, “That sounds like another experiment you should do, Jimmy Wayne.”
Jimmy Wayne’s mood improved immediately and he said, “That’s a good idea. I’ll lay this one right here on my forearm and see if he can.”
From the driver’s seat, Mike got involved again. “Bite him, tick.”
Philip said, “I got to admit, I’m rootin’ for the tick, too.”
‘I’d sure as hell bite him,” I said.
Jimmy Wayne said, “Ouch! You little shit.”
~ ~ ~
One day we were surveying in the city as we would occasionally be called upon to do. We were across the street from a high school near some high grass and yaupan bushes. Jimmy Wayne said, “I gotta piss.”
I said, “Why you telling me? I ain’t really interested.”
“I need to drive to a 7-Eleven or something.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Mike always gets mad when I piss in the city.”
“You know the rule, just turn your back on the public.”
So Jimmy Wayne walked over to some waist high bushes and began to relieve himself into them, all the while nervously looking over his shoulder at the high school.
Then all hell broke loose, or at least it sounded like it. Jimmy Wayne began to scream and did the exact opposite of turning his back on the public. He began running toward us holding his tallywhacker in his hand.
It seems that some wasps residing in the bushes had taken exception to his intrusion and had stung him multiple times on his pecker. He was crying and carrying on excessively.
When we tried to ask him how he was, he was not very informative. He just kept saying, “OhMyGod, OhMyGod, OhMyGod …”, really fast. His member had swollen to a size that prohibited his putting it back in his pants. We all agreed we should drive him to the hospital, but the vote was close.
Now here’s the thing about laughter. Sometimes it’s what you do when there’s nothing else to do, so we all did that. Well, all except Jimmy Wayne, who just kept saying, “OhMyGod, OhMyGod, OhMyGod…”
Philip ventured an opinion that running into the hospital with your tallywhacker flopping around was indecent. That’s when I had an inspiration of which I am quite proud until this very day.
I got one of my work gloves from behind the seat of the CarryAll, handed it to Jimmy Wayne, and said, “Here, put this on you pecker and hold it there when we take you in the hospital, no one will notice a thing.”
The emergency room nurse did notice. You remember what I said about laughter?
~ ~ ~
One of the common activities deep woods surveyors engage in is brush cutting. This is accomplished with a machete about eighteen inches long. Keeping it razor sharp with a daily sharpening makes the work easier, so we all do. You need to cut the sapling or grass very near to the ground.
On the fateful day in question Jimmy Wayne was cutting brush that consisted of small saplings along a fence line. We were all doing it, overlapping as we went.
Jimmy Wayne was facing north, cutting, when he decided to look back south and whack a sapling he missed. You would think the fact that the prospective sapling was wearing blue jeans would have deterred him, but that’s just because you don’t know Jimmy Wayne.
So, he whipped the machete into Philip’s ankle and buried it to the bone. This upset Philip a great deal and he voiced his displeasure quite loudly. Jimmy Wayne repeatedly said he was sorry, but Philip didn’t seem to accept his apology.
Philip was on crutches for only about a month. As this story shows, surviving Jimmy Wayne was a group effort.
~ ~ ~
“Hey, Wayne, what looks like a rattlesnake, but ain’t?”
I had two problems with this question. The first was my divided attention. I was in a dry creek bottom with very high banks, looking into the eyes of a thirty-pound nutria rat. If you’ve never seen a Texas nutria, you’ll just have to take my word that you need to have chain link between you and him to feel comfortable. He was maybe 18 inches from his nose to the base of his tail, and my machete was only 18 inches long; so I was feeling inadequate. Jimmy Wayne’s question was unwelcome.
The second problem with his question was just the nature of Jimmy Wayne’s use of the English language. It took me a second to process the sentence’s structure. I decided, especially with the nutria’s obvious displeasure with my intrusion, that I would abandon the creek bottom to watch Jimmy Wayne fight a rattlesnake. That seemed more entertaining.
“Jimmy Wayne, if it looks like a rattlesnake then why do you say it ain’t?”
“It ain’t got no rattles.”
“Is it coiled up?”
“No, it’s stretched out amongst some oak saplings.”
I guess it bears some explaining as to why Jimmy Wayne would be asking me about rattlesnakes. That would be because I am from West Texas; the others on the crew are from other parts of the state. West Texas has lots of rattlesnakes which makes me the rattlesnake expert on the crew.
I knew, for example, that a rattlesnake can only strike for any distance with force if he is coiled. But, I figured Jimmy Wayne would be safer if he didn’t know that so I said, “Jimmy Wayne, if it looks like a rattlesnake my considered advice would be to leave it the hell alone.”
“Well, come over here and look at it. I’ll leave it alone as long as I can, but I ain’t making no promises.”
Upon making my way out of the creek bottom and joining Jimmy Wayne, I discovered the rest of the crew was in attendance. They were all staring at what was a breed of rattlesnake known as “Velvet Tail”. It gets its name from the fact that the rattles of the snake are jet black and look like velvet. The snake was laid out, mostly straight, in a group of small saplings with almost no room to maneuver. The rattles of this particular Velvet Tail were kind of buried under some leaves, leading to Jimmy Wayne’s confusion.
That was when I made my first mistake. I said, “He ain’t gonna hurt you, rattlesnakes can only strike when coiled.”
This apparently led the crew to feel safe, so they all began to crowd in close to the snake to get an eyeful. Realizing my mistake, I grabbed the line rod Jimmy Wayne had left stuck in the ground and stabbed the snake with it, pinning it to the ground before someone got bit. The snake did not rattle. The snake did not even move. No reaction at all.
I said, “I think that Velvet Tail is dead.” That was my second mistake.
They all crowded in real close as I pulled the line rod out of the snake. Then several things occurred in quick succession. A chain of events you might call it.
First, the rattlesnake rattled!
Next, everyone began to scream and wave razor sharp machetes around in the air.
Two machetes then clanged together with a sound that would have made Zorro proud.
Jimmy Wayne then tripped over a root and went down on his ass. This did not prevent him from continuing to wave his machete around madly.
Philip then tripped over Jimmy Wayne.
I came to my senses and slapped the line rod down horizontally on the snakes neck, pinning it down. I put a lot of pressure. Mike, the Crew Chief, was later displeased with me as it turns out one of the critical aspects of a useful line rod is that it is straight. This one was no longer straight.
“Everyone, just settle down! I’ve got the snake pinned down. Quit sword fighting before someone gets hurt.”
The sword fighting died down slowly, each person still flicking his machete gently like a cat flicks its tail. I said, “Mike, get in amongst those saplings and cut his head off.”
“I ain’t going near that snake.”
“Philip, you game?”
“Kiss my ass.”
Jimmy Wayne volunteered to do it. I wanted him to cut the head off, leaving us with a trophy. However, his machete came down on the snake’s cranium, and the adrenaline powered blow obliterated any evidence that the snake ever had a head.
After the deed was done, as Mike examined the line rod shaped like a hunting bow, Jimmy Wayne suddenly exclaimed, “I found part of his head.”
“I think I see a fang.”
“Jimmy Wayne, don’t touch it!”
“Mike, I think we may need to take Jimmy Wayne to the emergency room again.”
“Look what you did to the line rod!” Mike’s priorities seemed questionable.
Philip ventured his opinion, “Hell, it’s two miles back to the truck. If he’s gonna die, he’s gonna die.”
“Jimmy Wayne, how deep did the fang go?”
“Just a prick.”
“Did you put down the fang yet?”
“It’s full of poison. Please drop it and begin walking slowly back to the truck. You’re gonna be fine.”
“Slowly? I thought we’re going to the emergency room.”
“You just need keep your heart rate down.”
“What! I thought you said I was gonna be fine!” He began to almost dance in place. An aerobics instructor would have been proud.
“You’re right, Philip, he’s gonna die.” I didn’t really believe that; sometimes I’m just mean.
He didn’t die, of course, his luck was still holding out.
~ ~ ~
We were staring at a swamp.
It wasn’t normally a swamp. Normally it was a pond, but the rains had been steady for three weeks and what we were looking at was definitely a swamp. At least seventy acres of waist deep water.
Jimmy Wayne summed things up succinctly, as always, “Well, shit.”
I, for one, did not want to have to go into that water. “Philip, please tell me you can see to the other side of that water.”
“Nope. Centerline hits that small tree right out in the middle.”
“But we could do an offset, right?”
“Nope. Bigger tree to the right. Even bigger tree to the left.”
We knew better than to commence with any whining. We were the chainmen. We were, by definition, expendable. Wading into a swamp was one of the better uses to which we could be put.
After shedding unnecessary things like our wallets and our dignity, we reluctantly waded into the swamp to punish the rogue tree with death.
But, about halfway to the offending tree, things turned interesting. A huge water moccasin slipped off the branch of a tree and slid smoothly into the water.
If you aren’t from water moccasin country then you probably don’t know the most important thing about water moccasins. They have a chip on their shoulders. I know snakes don’t have shoulders, but wherever snakes would keep a chip the water moccasin keeps one. A big one.
They take things like walking into their line of sight personally. They focus on you and want to fight. Their idea of fighting is to bite you.
Their bite is not lethal. More like a severe bee sting unless you are allergic, but I’ve never known anyone who wants to do it twice.
The effect of the snake’s presence on Jimmy Wayne was immediate. He drew his machete and asked, “Did you see that?”
“Chill out, Jimmy Wayne, maybe he ain’t pissed.”
“What the hell you talking about? He’s a water moccasin, he was born pissed.”
Unable to argue with Jimmy Wayne’s conclusion, I tried to focus on what I could control. I was focusing intently on the water, trying very hard to see if the moccasin approached.
Jimmy Wayne did not concur with my wait and see approach. He began to chop viciously at the water.
“Jimmy Wayne, do you see him?”
“Then what the hell are you swinging at? Maybe you should wait till you see him and then swing at him. That would increase your odds of hitting him.”
“There’s no way I can see him, the water’s all muddy.”
“That’s because you’re chopping the water! Stop it!”
“I ain’t gonna let him bite me!”
Jimmy Wayne couldn’t seem to see this vicious cycle for what it was. He couldn’t see the snake, so he chopped at the water. He chopped at the water and muddied it so then he couldn’t see the snake.
Knowing Jimmy Wayne well, I knew this would only end due to fatigue in Jimmy Wayne’s swinging arm. So, I waded ahead and put the offending tree out of it’s misery.
To this day Jimmy Wayne contends the only reason the snake didn’t bite him is due to his defensive prowess with a machete.
~ ~ ~
One day as we made our way through the Texas woods and meadows we came upon an impassable creek. Normally when you hit a creek that seems uncrossable it is just a matter of going upstream or downstream to find a better place to cross. However, this day those searches yielded no evidence of places to cross easily. The creek was swollen with rainwater. We were not going to be able to cross it.
The point at which centerline crossed the creek was distinctive. The near bank was at least twelve feet above the opposing bank vertically. The span across was maybe fifteen feet and the opposing bank was low and had a sandy-looking beach near it.
As we perused the situation, Jimmy Wayne suddenly said, “I can jump across, put a pin, and walk out to meet you at the road. That will save an hour, and get us headed home sooner.”
This is another one of those memories that are tinged with guilt. I could have told him it was too far, or that it was too high, or that he was an idiot. I said none of those things. Instead, looking at Philip, I said, “This is going to be interesting.”
We all gathered near the bank to watch the show. Jimmy Wayne backed up several strides, took a running start, and launched himself into the hospital. The sandy looking beach was really hard packed clay. When he hit, he screamed and went ass over toes into the far bank.
Laying very still, he said, “I think I broke something.”
“Don’t move Jimmy Wayne. We’ll come around to take you to the hospital.”
Now this situation is a good example of the decision making responsibilities of the Crew Chief. It turns out that the best thing to do was for Mike to wait with the truck while Philip and I took turns carrying Jimmy Wayne for almost two miles.
It turns out he only cracked an ankle bone. Since the company had a serious issues with “on-the-job loss-of-time injuries” for insurance reasons, it was declared he could work. So, Jimmy Wayne was told to drive the truck for the next six weeks while he was in a cast.
But, this is Jimmy Wayne we’re talking about. He only wore the cast for five weeks. One day as we returned to the truck from deep in the woods, we discovered Jimmy Wayne using the saw to cut the cast off his leg.
The four foot band saw is not intended for use on removing casts. It’s purpose is to cut down trees when the chain saw is out of gas and is intended to be run by two men.
He was doing a poor — but enthusiastic — job of removing the cast. The diagonal cut in the cast was stained with a red color that was obviously provided by Jimmy Wayne’s blood.
Mike was concerned. “Jimmy Wayne, what the hell are you doing? You’re cutting yourself!”
“Not very deep.”
“Not very deep! Are you nuts?”
“If you’re so concerned, help me pry this cast open so I can stop the blood.”
I couldn’t resist putting in my two cents worth. “You’re scheduled to see the doc to get it removed next Friday. Couldn’t you wait a week?”
“All’s he was gonna do is cut it off, same as I’m doing.”
“I beg to differ. I bet he’s got a tool better than our saw that would avoid cutting into your leg.”
“Where was all this concern when I said I was gonna jump off a cliff?”
Now, he had me there. I couldn’t seem to form an acceptable response, so I helped him pry open the cast and stop the blood.
He never did go back to that doctor.
~ ~ ~
The most convincing example of how lucky Jimmy Wayne was to be alive involves the demise of our survey crew.
We worked for an electric utility and it decided to outsource the survey work, but told us all we still had jobs if we were willing to do something else. I chose to move into office work where there were no machetes and no Jimmy Wayne. Jimmy Wayne chose to become a Lineman for the electric utility.
Let me reiterate in case you missed the significance. Accident-prone Jimmy Wayne thought climbing forty foot poles and working with seventy-two hundred Kilovolt wires was a good idea. We gave him a wake. He thought it was a going away party, but it was a wake.
Two weeks into his Lineman training Jimmy Wayne fell from the top of a pole and broke both legs in multiple places. We were all relieved he hurt only himself, and were totally unsurprised that the company offered to pay him disability for life.
I told you you wouldn’t believe it.