He was brought up on a farm raising cows and sheep and horses just across the pasture from the new, brick house he and his bride had built. After growing up together and going to church and high school, one night while driving through the game reserve he proposed marriage and she accepted. She finished college and took a job teaching. He took classes to be a mechanic. It was war time, so before being drafted into the Army, he joined the Air Force. He ended up in Homestead, Florida and started by fueling planes, but due to his skills as a marksman was given a job as a specialist teaching soldiers how to shoot. He managed to stay out of Vietnam, then with his young wife and two year old daughter in tow, came back home to work in the paper mill like his father before him. Most afternoons and weekends found him in his boat fishing or in the woods hunting. He was young, one month shy of 30, strong as a bull ox with the build to prove it.
July 5, 1969 was hot. Any July day in northeastern Louisiana was hot. That is why, despite years of tradition, they chose to stay home from the family reunion on the 4th. There were lots of babies on the way as well. She was 8 months pregnant with their number two child. His English setter had delivered a litter of 13 puppies the day before. Early that morning, Saturday the 5th, he had gone into town to work the shut-down at the paper mill. She washed and set her hair to have it ready for church the next day, and while their little girl played, laid down on the couch to rest.
During shut-down, several machines are turned off for maintenance. The mill is full of men working to get the machines serviced, back up, and running smoothly. First thing that morning all the mechanics had been assembled on the floor of the machine shop and told that the main power switch to all machinery including the lights would be off. They would be working with flashlights that day. They were also told they didn’t need to “tag” any machines, because the tags from the day before had not yet been pulled. The tags let other crewmen know not to turn a machine on.
He was to work on one of the big exhaust fans in a boiler room. It was a job he’d done many times before. He knew the drill. For my Daddy, the hardest part of that Saturday should have been folding his six foot frame into the small space at the top of the shaft where the exhaust fan was housed.
This particular fan had a 48” blade and was run by a 20 horsepower motor. It was used to pull heat and steam off the boiling wood pulp and out onto the roof of the mill. Temperatures in the mill could reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, so the fans were very important. It had been worked on by several other men the day before. They had replaced the bearings and belts, and it was up to him to finish the job they had begun. The motor for the fan was at the top of a vertical shaft, and the shaft was about 30 feet high. Along with the metal rungs that were attached to the wall as a ladder, there were also pipes and steam lines with which to contend, but he strapped on his tool belt, headed up through the maze, and set to.
When he reached the top of the shaft, he found Melvin, one of the insulators, sitting in the hole where he needed to work. Melvin, happy for a break, excused himself to go smoke a cigarette. Daddy was too big to crawl through the maintenance hatch that Melvin had just vacated, so he stuck his left leg down between the blades of the fan and lodged his right leg against the wall for leverage.
There he sat, sweating, wedged into that too small space, tools out, flashlight clamped in his teeth. He had finished the major work and had begun to screw all the fittings into the motor. He was hooking everything up and in line–just minutes away from leaving–when he heard the fan crank. Someone who didn’t know he was up there had turned it on. It didn’t take very long for the power of twenty horses to kick in. To add insult to injury, that particular fan had two blades. One just below his knee, and one at the top of his head. There was really no time to react, but with reflexes honed by years of hunting and muscles hardened by years of work, my Daddy had the sense to duck his head, grab onto the seams in the hood of that fan, and hold on for his life and for ours.