The beer was thin and tepid. I’m not sure what brand I was drinking, but it really didn’t matter much. In 1980, Coors was the outer edge of exotic, and beer ran from pale to paler. Bruce had drifted over to the other side of the loud, crowded barroom. I caught his eye and motioned to see if he wanted another one. He smiled and shook his head no. I scanned the room for signs of Bob, but he was nowhere to be found. Probably out in the back parking lot smoking pot with somebody. Bob was predictable. I ordered myself another beer.
The Flamingo is a large bar, or at least it was until the oil boom eventually went bust in one of the many downturns that give Wyoming its wind-swept impermanence. I managed to find a seat at the bar along with the other long-haired and ill-shaven guys wearing Carhartts, the Okie-from-Muskogee-goes-to-Haight-Ashbury look that Willie Nelson perfected. The place buzzed while a less than professional band did covers of Marshall Tucker and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
It was a Friday, maybe a Saturday night. I had been working on an oil rig outside of Rawlins for three months. The gas crisis of the 70’s had triggered a boom in domestic oil exploration, and I was dipping my straw into the surging current of cash that had brought nearly all the men in the Flamingo that night—and it was pretty much only men—to Wyoming.
Behind me guys pressed forward for drinks. It felt good to swim in the swift and raw currents of a workingman’s world flooded with money. I remembered getting my first paycheck on a late Friday afternoon. The drilling rig was more than an hour from town, and all the banks were closed by the time we’d returned. But my boss assured me that I could go to any bar and cash an oil-field check. So late the next morning I did. The manager told me that he had to charge me a dollar per hundred cashed. I assented, and he counted out ten $100 bills and some tens and singles. It was the first time in my life that I had ever held a $100 bill.
Weeks had rolled by, and paychecks were cashed, and on this night in the Flamingo I was feeling flush and complacent. I was an oil-field roughneck out with his buddies. The place was filling. Voices were loud and urgent with a weekend lust for good times. A guy knocked against me as he squeezed his way toward the bar. My beer spilled. A little got on him, and he glowered at me as if it had been my fault. “Sorry,” I said, and I ordered another, and one for him as well just to show that I was a good guy. When mine came, I turned the glass slowly around in the small pool of foam that slid down its sides. Vacant in alcoholic relaxation and filled with inward satisfaction from my repose in the fraternity of the rigs, I drifted slowly into myself.
I had known nothing of oil rigs and roughnecks growing up in Towson, Maryland, a pleasant suburb of Baltimore. Lacrosse stick in my hand from an early age, I never signed up for Little League baseball. I should have gone to play for Princeton or Cornell or Brown, and then on to Salomon Brothers or law school. But I was deflected. By age eighteen, a teenage fascination with rock climbing came to predominate. I think it was one of my sister’s friends who gave me the push. “If you want to be a rock climber,” he told me, or at least my memory tells me, “you really have to go to Yosemite.” In September 1978, instead of going off to college, I hitchhiked west to Yosemite, the place climbers simply call “the Valley.”
A couple of weeks turned into the better part of a year. Eager, I soon became accomplished. Two weeks after arriving I had climbed El Capitan. By the end of the spring, as I piled up ascent after ascent, the small, informal, but rigorously elite group of top climbers quietly inducted me into their company. When the legendary Jim Bridwell came over to my campsite, wanting to know what I thought of this or that move on some particularly intimidating route of his, it was like being touched on the head by the king’s sword.
But I was not the typical climbing bum stretching a few bucks to stay for another week. I had arrived in Yosemite with Richard Feynman’s Lectures on Physics in my backpack, as well as Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. The force that had pressed me away from the college classroom worked against an equal and opposite pressure. By May I was out of money, and I was dimly aware that I could not hang from rock faces forever.
Three months later, my father dropped me off at Haverford College, a wonderful monastery of establishment liberalism that eventually educated me as it had my father and would my brother and, briefly, one of my sisters. But my soul was divided. During my freshman year I was as much on the rocks as in the classroom, at least in my heart. Even lacrosse, that old passion, and girls, a new or at least newly requited one, failed to break the spell. And so at the end of the year I asked the dean for a leave of absence.
My parents were not pleased, though they mounted no sustained protests. In late July 1979, when my efforts to find work in Baltimore to finance yet another round of rock-climbing adventure yielded little, I asked a friend to give me a start on my hitchhike west. He dropped me off a few miles out of town on I-70. I had about $500 in my pocket, a plan to go to the Tetons, and a few peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches prepared for me by my mom.
My backpack was overloaded with garish red and purple nylon climbing ropes and all the shiny gear that clinks and clanks around climbers as they work their way up the rock. In a series of providentially coordinated rides—twice, drivers used their CB radios to arrange seamless transfers at rest areas—I rocketed west toward the mountains. An Army cook on leave picked me up just west of Chicago. He drove eighty miles an hour to get to his girlfriend in Omaha as my mind raced in anticipation of grand ascents. Then, as I stood by I-80 near Grand Island, Nebraska, exhaustion led the “The Fat Man” (his very accurate CB handle) to stop and, a hundred or so miles later, turn over to me the wheel of his pickup while he snored the night away and I drove straight through to Rock Springs sustained by his cache of Diet RC Cola.
A couple of rides later, I made it to the American Alpine Club Climber’s Ranch in the Tetons less than three days after leaving Baltimore. I couldn’t have driven faster on my own. As a bonus, after my sandwiches ran out, the guys who gave me rides had bought me meals. I spent exactly nothing to travel 2,000 miles.
The good fortune was a harbinger. Rick Lui, who had run the Climber’s Ranch in the Tetons for at least a decade, knew my type—eager and poorly financed—and he winked as I slept in the woods on the sly. But a day or two after I got there, Bill Nicholson unexpectedly arrived. I knew Bill from my year in Yosemite. He and I would sit by the campfire and talk about how much we wanted to find our way to the big mountains of Alaska. It’s one thing to test oneself on the rock faces in the western sunshine; it’s another to make one’s way across glaciers and up ice-covered slopes.
We climbed the east face of Teewinot together. Sharing a can of sardines on the summit, with the towering north face of the Grand Teton standing sentinel to the southwest, he turned to me. “Rusty,” he said, “we’ve just got to get up to Canada.” Picking the last crumbled sardine carcass out of the mustard sauce, I agreed. The next day, as August began, we were driving over Teton Pass and heading north.
Bill’s 1965 VW van strained at 50 miles per hour, and the cream-colored dashboard had no radio. Time and silence made for long conversations. But sharing the cost of gas drained me quickly, and by the end of the month my wallet was empty. I think it was on the plains of Alberta, on the way back south, under a boiling ocean of low hanging clouds that made the endless fields and empty roads seem small and lifeless, that Bill recommended Rawlins as the place to restore my finances. “Just go the Ferris Hotel downtown,” he told me, “and ask the desk clerk if any of the drilling crews need a hand. The pay is fantastic, and they’re always looking for somebody.” It seemed impossibly precise and vague at the same time, but since Bill was driving through Rawlins on his way back to Denver, I thought I would give it a shot.
The Ferris was an old-style, downtown hotel. A few years ago, when I drove through Rawlins again, it was shuttered, like, it seemed, half the town, but even then the Ferris was not exactly flourishing. Built in the 1950’s during the uranium- and iron-mining boom, it was far from the interstate exits that have sucked commerce out of the old town centers throughout the West and Midwest. Four or five stories of utilitarian beige brick were topped by an impressive neon sign that depicted a steam shovel and spelled out the hotel’s name. The lobby featured linoleum, blonde wood, and formica. The day I walked in, two or three old men were sitting in low, vinyl-covered chairs repaired by clear packing tape, silently reading newspapers and magazines.
I had $10 in my pocket, and I knew absolutely nothing about drilling for oil. And I had never had much luck finding jobs. I think I tended to be too ambivalent, unable to project the impression, for example, that I was unaccountably eager and strikingly qualified to wash dishes or paint houses or be a paralegal. To my amazement, when I asked the expressionless woman at the front desk if she knew of a drilling crew that needed a hand, she said, “Yes.” She went over to a bulletin board beside the rows of small shelves that contained room keys on rings tagged with duct tape. Carefully removing a torn-off edge of paper, she gave it to me without a word. On it was written, in a very uneven cursive, “Chain hand needed. Call Kenny. 544-7182.”
I had no idea what chain hand meant. The booming oil fields were always in need of workers, Bill had emphasized, but he hadn’t been very specific. As I studied the note, the woman was sizing me up. I was not the first fresh-faced young man that rumors of well-paying labor had brought to her front desk, and she drew the accurate conclusion that I was a hopeless tenderfoot. Sensing my paralyzing uncertainty, she put me in motion. “Pay phone’s over there,” she said, gesturing to her left.
The phone call was brief and to the point. “You got any rig experience?” “No.” “None?” “None, sir.” Long silence. “You willin’ to work hard?” “Yes, sir.” Shorter silence, and then a voice, growling in concession to necessity, said: “Be ready at seven tomorrow morning in front of the Ferris.”
It did not seem more possible just because it had become real. Five minutes in Rawlins and broke, a help-wanted ad of the most informal sort, one very brief phone interview, and the next thing I knew I had a job making more money than I could ever have imagined possible. A double shift here and there would bring two weeks’ pay close to $1,500—a fabulous sum for a twenty-year-old in 1980.
But it wasn’t just the money that made the job so remarkable. The oil-field managers in their four-wheel-drive Suburbans with the company logo on the side made more money. For that matter, the owner of the Flamingo bar made much more money, to say nothing of oil-company shareholders, or Wall Street bankers who brokered investments and traded futures, or Saudi princes who engineered the oil crisis of the 70’s that stimulated the domestic boom in oil exploration that had drawn me into its frothy Wyoming ventures in the first place.
I was none of these, but it didn’t matter, because I very quickly came to glory in my newfound identity. Roughnecks work in small, five-man crews on the front lines of an oil patch. They tend to be a high-spirited group with devil-may-care attitudes. We were the tip of the vast money-making spear. We felt it. The town knew it. An on-again, off-again college kid from a quiet Baltimore suburb, I had never heard of roughnecks, and I had no experience with any other kind of clubby and self-confident workingman’s mentality. But there I was. Pushed off the normal path from home to college to career by a passion for rock climbing, I had accidentally found my way into an elite corps of the industrial revolution.
A drilling rig is a massive platform of machinery that sits about two stories above the ground. The floor of the rig itself is about the size of a living room, flanked at the back by two or three monstrous engines the size of large vans, and fronted by a long metal slide that reaches down to lengths of drilling pipe stored at ground level. Along one side of the rig platform is attached a narrow metal building that looks like a suspended mobile office. With droll self-knowledge, roughnecks call this place of occasional refuge the doghouse. The other side has stairs and catwalks that provide access to a tangle of pipes and pumps. Over the rig floor soars the derrick, a 150-foot superstructure of steel that supports various cranes and pulleys.
The purpose of a drilling rig is to bore a hole in the ground to tap reservoirs of oil below the surface. To do so, machinery is set up to function like a giant power drill, twisting a bit that bores ever more deeply into the earth’s crust. The huge engines turn the drilling pipe that runs from the center of the platform down and into the ground.
Things get complicated, however, because the hole being drilled is very deep. In the first place, all the stuff being ground up by the drill bit, the “tool,” needs to come up and out of the hole; otherwise, the tool will eventually seize up in the endlessly pulverized stuff at the bottom of the hole. The bits in ordinary hand drills have a spiraling indentation to guide wood or metal shavings out of the hole. But this does not work if the hole is deep. So the oil-drilling rig is set up to pump a thick, silicon-conditioned mud down the hollow center of the drill pipe and out through jets in the tool. The mass of pipes and pumps to the side of the drilling rig are devoted to this purpose, and if all functions well, the pressurized mud brings the tailings up and out of the hole. Roughnecks spend a fair amount of time doing the tedious work of preparing the mud and managing the system that circulates it through the hole. There is no romance in this work.
The depth of the hole creates a further problem. If you need to make a six-inch-deep hole in a piece of wood, then you can run out to Home Depot and buy a drill bit long enough to penetrate. But what if you want to drill a ten-foot hole—or a ten-thousand-foot hole? You need to find a way to stop and add extenders as the bit presses downward. On the drilling rig, this is accomplished by fixing the tool to 33-foot sections of drill pipe. Every time the drilling reaches down a full length of pipe, the rig boss, called the driller, stops the spinning table at the center of the rig. The rest of the crew assembles to hoist the next section of pipe up the ramp and add it to the string that reaches down into the hole. Once the new pipe section is attached, the spinning process starts again, and the drilling resumes. It is a moment of genuine urgency and concentration. The cranes go into motion. Engines roar. The roughnecks take their place on the rig floor to manipulate the drill pipe.
But it’s only a moment. The bigger problem with deep drilling is what makes the job of roughneck hard, dirty, dangerous— and heroic. Even though drilling tools cost tens of thousands of dollars because they are tipped with industrial diamonds, they wear out every few days and need to be replaced. Here physics and finances conspire. Getting a tool out of the ground when it is 10,000 feet below the surface involves pulling a seemingly endless amount of drill pipe up and out. Piece by piece, the long string needs to be broken apart. The pipe is then set aside to be reassembled as the new tool is sent back down to restart the drilling.
This process of pulling out the tool, replacing it, and then sending it back down the hole is called tripping, as in “taking the tool for a round trip.” The trip must be done as quickly as possible, because when the tool is not pushing downward toward its profitable destination, the oil company is still paying thousands of dollars a day to keep the rig on the site and the crew on the job.
The need for rapid replacement of the tool is why the derrick rises up so high. When tripping out of the hole, the roughnecks keep the 33-foot pieces of drill pipe in larger, 100-foot chunks. These longer sections are twisted off the string and leaned against the derrick for efficient reassembly. As the tool comes out, the stack of drill pipe grows. Even from a distance you can tell when a rig is tripping, because a great bulk of recently removed drill pipe fills the otherwise delicate metal superstructure of the derrick. It can take an entire eight-hour shift to pull a couple of miles of drill pipe out of the ground, and another whole shift to put it back in.
When tripping, roughnecks work at a rapid pace. Thousands of pounds of metal equipment are thrown into a carefully choreographed process. The derrick hand takes his place, strapped in 100 feet above the rig floor to manage the tops of the 100-foot lengths. The driller mans the controls along the side of the engines, barking orders and throwing levers that work the various cranes, chains, and machines that manipulate the many tons of drill pipe that need to be taken out and then put back into the hole. Three workers—the “motorman,” the “chain hand,” and the “worm”—stand at the center of the drilling platform, breaking apart the joints in the drill pipe on the way out and remaking them on the way back in.
The drill pipe is joined together when the male end of the pipe is screwed into the female end. It sounds straightforward. But making and breaking joints is complicated when 100 feet of drill pipe the thickness of a man’s thigh swings from a crane high above the rig floor. It is also complicated by the fact that the drilling process has tightened the joints. To break apart these lengths of pipe, the rig is equipped with giant tongs that are counterweighted so that the motorman and worm can attach them above and below the joints in opposing directions. The tongs function like eight-foot-long pipe wrenches.
I was the worm. The rig culture had not been troubled by sensitivity training. I don’t think Kenny, my driller, ever called me by my given name. His face deeply lined by a lifetime of outdoor work, he always growled at me, “Worm.” Or more likely, “Damn worm.” My name came from my place on the drilling platform while tripping. I worked worm’s corner, the back side of the drilling floor that is flanked by the giant engines. This is where the beginner begins, not because the other jobs require all that much more skill or experience, but because worm’s corner is the most dangerous and dirty and exhausting place when the rig is in full action.
As the crew trips, the engines thunder and cables shudder until the joints of the drill pipe finally break free. All the power of the rig pulls in the direction of worm’s corner. Because of his position between the drill pipe at the center of the platform and the engines behind, if the worm’s tong breaks under the strain, or if a cable snaps, the metal crashes toward him. Working worm’s corner feels like standing by the fence of the sharpest curve of a Formula One race watching the cars scream toward you, and hoping that everybody makes the turn.
My first safety lesson came when I held my tong in place as the engines reached toward their highest pitch. A standing worm will be cut in half by a broken cable whipped back by the pulling motors. “Crouch, you goddamned worm,” Kenny screamed at me over the din of the motors. So I crouched. As the cable at the end of my tong snapped tight and I felt an unimaginable force pulse through the tong I was now holding above me with my head bowed and my face instinctively averted, I had no difficulty seeing Kenny’s wisdom.
The crouching position may promote safety, but it brings discomfort. Most worn-out tools clog, and the mud remains trapped in the stack of pipe that has just been drawn up and out of the hole and now towers above the rig floor. When the joint breaks free, the mud rushes out. Every trip dumps hundreds of gallons onto the drilling platform. And since that tong must be held in place as the massive cable pulls back to break the joint, I was always right there as the mud spilled out. On any given trip, I was quickly soaked to the skin. Thus did I merit my muddy name.
My second safety lesson came very quickly after the first. As the mud pours out of the drill pipe held above the rig floor by the crane above, the worm must stand, grasp the freed, 100-foot column of pipe, and force it over and against the other sections stacked against the side of the derrick. The first time I grabbed a column I was surprised by the violent, side-to-side bucking of its soaring height. The swinging momentum of the suspended steel tore it from me, and I grasped the bottom threads with my hands to gain control. Kenny almost knocked me out with a blow across the back of my head as I slid past him, carried by the shivering column of pipe across the mud-slick metal floor of the drilling platform. “Goddamned worm,” he brayed at me through his toothless mouth, “Wanna lose your goddamned fingers?” He told me to bear-hug the pipe. Better to bruise your shoulder when you slam into metal and machinery than to sever your fingers. Comforting thought.
I should have been miserable about the work, but I was not. When men sweat and shiver together, they tend to enjoy an esprit de corps. The feeling was not unfamiliar. I had experienced it playing sports, and even more so in my fraternity of rock climbers. But what was new was the magnifying effect of machines. Dancing with dangerous and fierce iron that will both do their will and threaten their lives, men tend to form a bond that is more satisfying than the work is difficult, or maybe more satisfying because the work is difficult. And when the work takes them to remote, treeless plateaus to punch through the earth’s skin to reach the precious blood of industrial society, they share in a secret, inner revelation of their place, their indispensable place, at the center of a sleeping world that with its calm and tree-lined suburban streets and well-timed commuter trains and smell of morning coffee turns around them in their high-spirited, splendid isolation.
No, I was not miserable, far from it. On my barstool in the Flamingo that November night, nearly three months after arriving in Rawlins, surrounded by the noise of an increasingly drunk and rowdy crowd, lost in my private reverie, I had visions of our common purpose, and I enjoyed warm feelings of solidarity with my working buddies. The music was bad and the barroom floor sticky with spilled beer. But I did not care. I was flushed with an exuberant inner embrace of everything that Rawlins had come to represent to me.
My mind was taking me back to the night shift of the day before. It had been a full day, but during a rare rest before the final push to complete a trip. I was sitting on the end of the drilling platform with Julio, the motorman, a compact, powerful, and laconic Mexican with five small children who lived on the far south end of Rawlins where the new state penitentiary was being built. To our side, one of the giant heaters blew hot air across the floor of the rig in a futile gesture against the rough wind of the high plains. We were bent over our flimsy paper coffee cups that we held with both hands to draw out all the warmth they could give. We looked outward over the vast expanse of south-central Wyoming now robed in noble purple of earliest dawn. In the distant semi-darkness a single set of headlights twinkled on U.S. Highway 287. Immediately behind us the engines of the rig purred at gentle idle. Julio turned his face down to his coffee, blew gently on it, and then turned to me. He said in layered tones of melancholic irony and genuine happiness, “Life is good, my friend.”
Suddenly I was jerked into the unpleasant consciousness of a man who had thrust himself toward me at the bar. His face was as distorted by a lust for violence as his words were slurred by bourbon. “Who you lookin’ at?” he asked.
It was not an innocent question. It never has been.
I was at a loss. In high school, some boys play an elaborate game of testing taunts. In the locker room after gym class, one or two self-appointed harpies kick your sneakers across the tile floor and then stand and smirk. Other boys down the bench look silently into their lockers. Or someone knocks your books out of your hands between classes, and then says a disingenuous “Sorry.” Or a group of boys who think themselves at the top of the heap decide upon a demeaning nickname. “How is our little Gomer today?”
Cold indifference can parry these attempts to find out where you are in the male hierarchy, but not forever. Eventually a line is crossed, and you either submit to the humiliation, accept the dominance of those who insult, badger, and threaten, and just try to avoid them—or you enter into the ancient game of male combat that is the final arbiter of status. But my suburban high school had been pretty tame. Fighting in the hallways had been more a matter of pushing and grappling than the serious business of throwing punches with an eye toward blood.
“I said, who you lookin’ at?”
“Nobody,” I said. As soon as I had spoken, I realized that my answer had an entirely unintended ring of defiance. I had no idea of what I should do. The guy threatening me had no look of tentative, high-school posturing. He was missing a couple of teeth. He seemed completely uninterested in the verbal jousting that might have allowed me to try my hand at the art of graceful submission. And he was miles away from the genteel Dionysian drunkenness of kids with high SAT scores on apple-blossom spring evenings at Haverford College.
I saw the dirt mixed with sweat on his forehead. The flare in his nostrils sent a direct message to my gut. My brain seemed suddenly both entirely empty and completely engaged. I could hear my heart pounding and feel the veins in my neck thicken. He seemed to be saying something else, but my concentration on his face and his shoulders and his hands prevented me from thinking about his words. I felt the wave of my own fear crash over me and drown whatever semi-conscious democratic bonhomie I might have been feeling minutes before. I saw nothing but violence. I may have had oil-stained hands, but I was a well-scrubbed, orthodontically-correct college kid who wanted to call 911.
“Hey, you gotta problem with my buddy?” I didn’t turn to look, but I saw the man in front of me shift his eyes. I felt Bruce’s hand on my shoulder, gently pulling me back so that he could move forward. I was suddenly irrelevant, released from the gravity of the stranger’s lust for battle. Bruce never looked at me. His fierce eyes were focused on the stranger whose menace had changed complexion. My fear drained away as suddenly as it had flooded my mind. Mr. Bourbon Breath was now where I had been.
Bruce was a fellow roughneck, but he was not on my drilling crew. We had met at my house, where my roommate Bob kept a constant party going. He came the first time with his brother, whom I knew only as Spider, the nickname everybody used. They were the McGehee brothers. One of the other guys smoking pot with Bob leaned over to me and whispered as he nodded in Spider’s direction, “He’s banned from every bar in Rawlins. Beat up too many guys.” As I looked over at Spider, who had settled into a dark silence in a chair off to the side, I flinched inwardly. He was big and lean, and he looked mean. I don’t recall hearing him say a single word, and he never came around again.
Not so his brother Bruce, who smiled broadly and visited fairly often. I’m not sure why he befriended me. It amused and pleased him to make fun of my small pile of books in the room off the kitchen where I slept: Carl Jung, Herman Hesse, and other titles that would appeal to an increasingly late-adolescent seeker of my generation. Reading was not exactly a regular roughneck diversion.
But then again, Bruce was not exactly regular himself. He would come over to our house and sit on the couch, laughing and telling jokes. When others were talking, he would unconsciously twist his wrists, producing a loud cracking sound that I found difficult not to notice. So I asked him, “Bruce, what’s with that noise?” He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, “Well, Rusty, I was stupid enough to fall out of a helicopter upside down when I was in Vietnam, and I broke my damn wrists.” “What were you doing in Vietnam?” I asked. He roared with laughter and exclaimed, “Fighting!”
There were other beer-drinking, fun-loving guys who made their way through our living room to buy psychotropic mushrooms from Bob. But Bruce’s laughter blurred with passionate, serious moods. He recalled fishing with friends in his childhood in Arkansas, and his voice quivered with the joy of recollection. He had sized me up all too accurately, but with a generosity that came from not wanting to be anyone but who he was. Once he put his arm around me and spoke to me like an older brother, or maybe like a father—it was hard to place his natural combination of superiority and warmth. “Hey man,” he said, “aren’t you goin’ back to college where you belong?” He wasn’t trying to put me down. He wasn’t even trying to encourage me to leave the rigs of Wyoming, which he regarded as a place every man would savor. He meant it as a way of telling me that he liked me for who I was, which did not require my being like him.
Bruce drank with the boys, but he never seemed to be drunk. He was intelligent and he enjoyed hard work. Unlike so many of the transient personalities that drifted in and out of rig work, he had a consistency that brought him to the level of a driller, a crew boss. In many ways, he was born for success. But he was born out of season. His spirited nature, what the ancient Greeks called thumos, predominated. He lived by a code of loyalty, personal dignity, and love of combat. Bourgeois values of prudent self-advancement, accumulation of wealth, and reliance on law and police to maintain social order were entirely alien to his personality. From the first I judged him a good man, but I never doubted that he was a dangerous man, a very dangerous man. I was glad that he was friendly toward me, not just because he had a generous heart, but because I could see that it might be perilous to be someone Bruce did not like.
That November night in the Flamingo, with my wallet full of cash and my gently intoxicated mind full of roughneck reveries of my grand fusion with the American experience, it was my great good fortune that Bruce was not at all a man of my upper-middle-class world. He stared at the stranger. He did not try to mediate. He did not try to defuse the situation. “If you want to get to him,” Bruce said, gesturing in my direction, “you gotta go through me.”
The other man was silent. I thought that I could actually smell the faint but pungent and humiliating odor of his fear. Bruce was not just a linebacker of a man; he had the capacity to give his will an almost physical, visible expression in the intensity of his posture and the cold force of his voice. His eyes were filled with violence, but unlike the drunken man and his wild, uncontrolled desire for blood, Bruce’s face conveyed a joyful, seemingly rational anticipation of battle.
The band was still playing in the back room. A part of my senses heard the noise of voices and the bar glasses that continued to tinkle in the sink as they were being washed. But it seemed as though the world had gone silent. The stars themselves pivoted around the gravitational force of Bruce’s presence. Everybody at the bar turned. I still see their faces in the barroom of my memory. They are looking at Bruce with an awe that admires and recoils from a superior being, a god, who would both fulfill their own ideals and destroy them in their weakness.
The stranger’s lips pulled back across his broken rows of teeth in a look of primitive horror. Bruce’s fierce expression gave way to a wry smile that suggested he had known many such men and their vague, formless lust for violence, their inflated, whiskey-fueled courage. The stranger seemed more to disappear and vaporize than to turn and walk away.
“Thanks for helping me out,” I said. Bruce’s smile became broad, and then he laughed. “Stay out of trouble, my friend.” He unconsciously cracked his wrists, and then turned to the bartender and said in a ringing voice, “Give this man a beer.” He threw down some money, patted me on the back, and disappeared into the crowd from which he had so miraculously emerged. It was only a couple of days later that I told my boss I was quitting to go back to college.