“I grew up in the old oil country of north-western Pennsylvania. Learned to drive on steep, curvy two-lane roads that snake through the area. When you’re a teenage boy, that’s alright!
“Anyhow, I know something about driving too fast for the conditions. But I was nothing compared to my high school buddy, Kenny. He loved cars. There wasn’t one he couldn’t fix. And if he didn’t have the right part, he could figure out how to patch something together. None of us had his talent.
“Kenny ended up making a living driving around drilling and fixing water wells and installing pumps in the Pennsylvania hills. When business was good, you’d find him deep off the back roads working. When things were slow, he’d be making up for lost time repairing the van or drilling rig.
“Sometimes he’d have to drive a couple hundred miles a day. He’d been on them in every season and every kind of weather, night or day. He did that for 15 years, and then one day he spun out, his rig went through the guardrail and down into the valley.
“We were all surprised. No one could believe it. Kenny really knew what he was doing – knew his van and rig, knew the roads, knew just how far to push it to get there with his load in time.
Everybody had a different theory about what went wrong.
“Kirkpatrick, who owned the well company, blamed Kenny. ‘I mean, he was good, but always the cowboy. Liked to push everything to the limit, and then some more. I tried to tell him ‘safety first,’ but short of riding along, how could I know when he was pushing it too hard?’
“Kenny’s mom blamed Kirkpatrick. ‘It was that man’s greed killed my son. Always shoving Kenny to cover more territory in less time. That boss had no idea what he was asking of my boy. Never once had he gone out on the road to see what it was really like. And that van he had Kenny drive was a piece of junk!’
“James Rathbone, running for county supervisor that year, blamed government. ‘Those roads were never designed for hauling heavy equipment. Traffic increased 100% in the last 10 years and we’re still trying to get by on small-lane roads. And where were the police? They’re supposed to enforce the law.’
“Del, a state trooper and one of Kenny’s oldest friends, took offense. ‘We barely got enough officers to patrol the highway. And besides, if anybody knew what he was doing on those back roads, it was Kenny. It was just bad luck that night – a patch of black ice, maybe. You can’t see that stuff until it’s too late.’
“Mr. Kirkpatrick’s son, Stuart, with his MBA, blamed competition – all those other drilling and plumbing companies that sprung up in the good times. ‘Listen, I’m sorry about Kenny, but there’s no getting around it. The name of this game is increasing the productivity of every man and piece of equipment out there. And, yes, my dad still has to cut costs. It’s grow or die.’
“In one sense, they were all right. The truck was old, the roads inadequate. God only knows what it was like to haul a drilling rig under all the conditions. Kenny was fast, and he took pride in covering the distance and finishing the job. But every time he did a little more, it raised the bar in Kirkpatrick’s mind. And the son was right. The company’s under a lot of competition.
“And Kenny’s mother was right. Neither Kirkpatrick nor the MBA-toting kid knew the first thing about driving, even if they knew something about the business end. For sure neither of them had experienced the driving risks first hand.
“But none of this is bottom line for me. Sure, it was an accident waiting to happen, but no one is talking about all the accidents Kenny prevented. We’re all in the big race for time and money and that takes skill. That means having very good drivers, especially when the roads have more traffic than they were built for and there are too few cops on all the roads that matter.
“We need more Kenny’s, not fewer, if we’re going to lick into shape this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.”