My contractor buddy, Jorge, dropped by last week with a wiry little guy sporting a goatee, a topknot, and a rawhide jacket with silver buttons. They arrived in time to watch me donate a locknut to the bowels of my car’s engine compartment. Bad enough there was no other such nut in my collection of worthless hardware, it now resided in one of the most notorious black holes in the universe. In more than 27 years, at least one extra car’s worth of hardware has disappeared there, so I knew searching was a futile gesture. But Jorge’s companion said, “Let me try,” and before I had time to wave him off, he leaned over to study the situation, stared heavenward in deep thought for a moment, then dived back in with a flourish. Almost at once he reappeared with not just the locknut, but a throttle set-screw, two cotter pins, and a pair of tweezers. The whole act had taken less than 10 seconds. “No big deal,” he said, brushing aside my amazement. “My name’s Salty Peters, and Jorge tells me you do a dirt-digging magazine.”
“Salty’s going to help me with a job we’re doing in Malibu,” Jorge explained. “You and he were in ’Nam at the same time, so I thought you’d like to buy us a drink and tell a few lies.”
It was true that Salty and I had been in that Southeast Asian paradise in 1970, but that was about as far as the similarity went. Where I slept on a cot and whipped around the countryside at something slightly below the speed of heat in my fire-belching aluminum overcast, he spent his time belly-to-the-ground, inching his way through pitch-black passageways beneath hostile villages in search of an enemy he was more apt to smell than see. Salty was a “tunnel rat,” a charter member of the gutsiest group of volunteers of the entire war. He spent his time slithering into holes no wider than a garbage pail with no clue as to who or what was down there, what agent of death or mutilation lay concealed around the next bend.
“Where I grew up in Kentucky, the mines were our playground,” he told me. “We used to play a game where the object was to sneak up on the other guys and jump them without being spotted. I was good at it,” he allowed with a grin. “I’d get this special feeling about where people were, and darned if they weren’t there,” he admitted with some relish.
“I’ve hired Salty to keep me from tearing up the pipes and wires on our new job,” Jorge explained. “The last time I did some heavy digging without his help, one of my guys hooked an unmarked sewer line, and by the time we got finished repairing it, I was out nearly $15,000 and a day behind schedule. Worse still, I had to strip and hose off my clothes in the backyard before Mary would let me in the house.” Jorge settled the matter of Salty’s credentials by saying, “It’s like he’s got this special radar telling him where and where not to dig.”
“After ’Nam I figured I was a pretty hot ticket with all the tunnel-rat stuff, so when I went to work for a contractor in San Diego, I sort of naturally gravitated toward the underground stuff,” Salty told me. “Boy, did I get it handed to me!
“There was this old buzzard named Gifford who’d been around for a million years. We were about to dig a trench, and he asked me where my ‘voices’ told me to start. ‘Here,’ I told him, kicking a divot to mark the spot. Gifford pulled out his wallet and said, ‘Five bucks says you strike oil.’
“Two feet and I’ll be dipped if this gusher nearly tore the bucket off. Old Gifford knew that during World War II, the Army Corps had put in a pipeline that nobody in the public works department was aware of.” It was then and there that Gifford put him straight on underground work.
“‘If you want to know what’s under there,’ he told me, ‘look at all the records you can find, going back as far as you can, then check with the old-timers to see what they remember.’ As Gifford said, information’s where all the magic lies, but the sixth-sense stuff makes for a great marketing tool.”“Yep,” I agreed, “it’s clear that money goes to where science is no match for superstition.”