Summer of 1966


Here are some excerpts from a story my sister wrote about the events that day:


“Tom was brought to the Emergency entrance of the Minidoka County Hospital, his face was so bloody, and his nose so torn that Elizabeth Berg, after being a good friend of the family for many years, did not recognize him and had to ask, “what is your name?”

“When I got there several friends had already arrived buy the Emergency room entrance, but they were a blur in comparison to the trail of bright red drops of blood leading to the Emergency door”.  Within a few minutes, Dad came out of the door and soberly, yet very stoically told us that Tom was injured very badly and that he might lose one of his legs. I remember so clearly the   white stripes on Dad’s bib overalls my face lay on his chest just sobbing and sobbing and sobbing. And that was just the beginning!”

Here is my story:


I grew up on a farm in Rupert, Idaho but always had summer jobs besides working on the farm.  My cousin ran a laundry and for the past few years I worked for him in the laundry.  I ran giant (seamed big then) wash machines that were manually operated as to how long you ran them biased on what you were cleaning.  What I remember most was washing sheets for Hotels, when the load was done with its washing cycles you pulled all the sheets out of the wash machine and put them into a spinner which removed a lot of the water.  When you were done spinning them you took them out and put them in a basket that was on caster wheels which was taken by the gals and put into a big machine that actually pressed them.  I didn’t like being inside standing on a wet floor with no windows or sunlight.  When I was done with my daily shift at the laundry I went home and worked on the farm.  I had two older sisters that worked there as well in the summer.   One of the benefits of working for my cousin was him and I would go water skiing at least once a week.  His kids were small and his wife didn’t like to go so we would go by ourselves.  We would take turns driving the boat while the other person skied.  We always skied in the Snake River by the Declo Exit.  I loved water skiing. 


In 1966 Project Mutual Telephone company was installing a new phone system for the whole county so everyone could have a private telephone line that no one could listen in on your conversations.   I applied with the contractor company who was doing the work and was hired.  My cousin was disappointed but I was going to not be working for him but I would be out doors and getting paid more money.  Growing up working on a farm and patriating in sports gave me a strong work ethic.  


My main job working for the contractor was to walk behind two large Caterpillar tractors that had a big ripper blade which sliced though the dirt and laid the telephone cable in the ground.  When we started a new roll of cable I would hold on to the new cable end and hold it until the Cats had plowed far enough so that the cable would hold its self.  Then I would walk behind the Cats with a stick in my hand and an inspector would drive alongside in a pickup truck and when he tooted his horn I would put the stick in the ground so he could see that the cable was being buried at the proper depth.


One day we run out of cable and had to stop for a few days while we waited for more cable.   So, they sent me with another guy (last name was Ennis) to a site that was 16 miles North West of Paul near an area that was known as Kimama Butte. There was a lava rock bed that would not allow the Cats to rip through the ground so it was necessary to drill holes for poles that could carry the cable over the lava bed.  Tuesday morning July 19th, 1966 the company sent me with Mr. Ennis to drill and prepare more holes for blasting. I wrapped both feet tightly around the jackhammer to hold it in place until the hole got started. I finished the first hole and moved the Jackhammer about 6” to start another hole, as with the first hole I wrapped my feet around the bit of the jackhammer, instantaneously I saw a bright yellow flash and then felt myself being elevated into the air.  The next thing I remember is lying on my back on the ground and Mr. Ennis was tying a piece of fabric around my left leg.  He was a smaller guy and I was a big boned kid and he picked me up and put me in the passenger seat of a one ton flatbed Ford truck.  When I looked down I could see the blood pooling on the floorboards, my pant legs were shredded.  The pain was beyond anything I had ever imagined.  It seemed to help the pain in a small way by gripping my hands around my legs just above the knees.  The road was a typical graveled road that had not been graded for some time so there was a lot of “washboards” and I had to take my hands off my legs and put one hand on the dash board and hold on to the other one with my right arm to stay in the seat.  I distinctively remember looking out the rearview mirror at my dust covered face with blood steaking down through the dust. At that time, I had no idea how bad I was injured, I just told myself that I knew the doctors somehow could fix me.  Finally, after what seemed like an eternity we arrived at the Emergency Room entrance.  I’m sure Mr. Ennis went looking for help but the next thing I remember is Mrs. Berg a nurse who was one of our neighbors came out with her eyes as big as basketballs, then I ask her if they wanted me to walk in?  I guess you say bizarre stuff like that when your body is in shock!!!    I was told that Mr. Ennis, understandably, sat down on a couch and passed out.    


I don’t remember very many details after they took me inside on a gurney, other than I was very thirsty and they would not let me drink anything.  Finally, someone brought me some small ice chips and placed them on my lips which helped.  I do not know why I knew that once they put me to sleep the pain would stop.  But before they could do anything they had to get permission from my dad.  (My dad was in a bean field irrigating.)  Mrs. Berg knew where my sisters worked at the laundry and called them looking for my dad.  My sisters borrowed a Jeep and went to find dad.  Apparently, they did not know how to shift the transmission in the Jeep so they “ground a few gears” but they found him.

I had no idea for a few days that they had amputated my left leg just below the knee.  They had my right leg in a splint cast.  Every other day was change the bandages day.  The bandage changes were extremely painful, they felt like they were ripping off a huge raw scab. I remember gripping each side of the bed frames and gritting my teeth until it was over.  They had started skin graphs and had to change the dressings where they had removed the skin. Very, very painful. 

I’m sure they kept me pretty sedated those first few days, but on the next night a big local Lumber Yard burned down. I remember seeing the flames from my hospital bed.  People said the could see the fire from Minidoka to Burley.  The hospital had an irrigation cannel nearby it and the fire trucks would come out and reload their tanks.  Somehow the fire and the fire trucks sirens upset me and I kicked the splint cast off my right leg.  After the cast came off they drilled a hole through what was left of my foot so they could put my leg in traction.  


I was a very lucky guy in that there was a new young doctor in Burley that was brought in to be my doctor.  His name was Dr. Charles Ellingham. Without his expertise they would have amputated me at the knee on the left side and 8” on the right side.  He might have even saved my life.  I was later told that he called some of his former associates and their advice was to leave everything on that was possible.  He did several skin graphs to cover some of the bare bones.  It seemed like I was in the operating room about every day for some reason or another.  They gave me hypodermic injections in my arm for pain.  It seemed like they gradually lost their effectiveness, or they were weaning me off of them. They changed my bandages about every other day. It was extremely painful when they changed them so when they did it I would grasp the metal sides of the bed frame and just hang on for dear life. I always say if you could find that bed you would see my fingerprints embedded in the metal.  


During that time the Vietnam war was raging.  Dr. Ellingham was either called up or had some kind of commitment to the Armed Services and after 30 days he had to leave.  At that point they transferred me to the St Alphonsus hospital in Boise.  I was transported in the back of a hearse that the local Mortuary had. The only thing I remember about the ride was these two things about ride:  There was a nurse that rode with me and that when we were in the King Hill area I could look up through the window and see the concrete irrigation cannels that weaved around the side of the hills. Most canals are still there and every time I drive past them I remember the ride.


At St. Alphonsus I was treated by Dr. William Tregoning who was an orthopedic surgeon.  There also was another doctor with the last name of Smith that did additional skin grafts.  After about a month I was allowed to go home in a wheelchair.  It didn’t take long for me figure out how to do wheelies in a wheel chair.

By the time I returned home school had started and it was my senior year.  I remember Mr. Condie bringing me and accounting book so I could study at home.  After some period of time I went to school.  Everyone was very helpful and I remember some of my classmates would pick up me in the chair and give me a ride up the stairs where some of my classes were. 

© 2018 Tom Nichols