- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - Once, he viewed the world from the top of a 70-foot oil derrick.

Eagles would pass as he worked in the Wyoming wind. He would use his whole body to keep balance, attaching solid steel piping that weighed thousands of pounds.

Now, he struggles to walk to the mailbox.

In Wyoming’s roughneck culture, the men who work the state’s oil and gas fields are as tough as their name. It’s a lucrative profession, but in exchange, the derrickhands, floorhands and pushers can work 14-hour days and live for weeks away from friends and family, sleeping in cheap rural motels that glitter like fireflies on the dark Wyoming landscape.

Some compare it to being in the Army, a brotherhood of tough men and women who seal cuts with super glue and get back to work, adrenaline junkies who thrive under pressure. But when the injuries are serious, when the close calls are too close, the job can rob these workers of life, mobility or livelihood.

It can also leave men accustomed to having control over their lives searching for their identity, reported the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/2ehQgPh). They navigate hospital billing offices and rehab programs, enduring chronic pain while they clean house, waiting to see how far the disability check or the workman’s compensation will stretch that month.

One such man is Malco Bielefeld.

Crushed

The 13-year veteran of the oil and gas fields was struck by blocks that fell from a workover rig in the Salt Creek Oil field last year. He was working for Basic Energy, contracted by FDL Energy, which owns the field surrounding Midwest.

The heavy pulley equipment crushed Bielefeld’s thin frame. He suffered fractures to his spine, both shoulder blades and his collarbone. His right arm was broken in two places, and the nerve damage causes intense pain at the base of his neck. It also makes him feel like his feet are on ice.

It’s unlikely the 53-year-old will be able to return to roughnecking, according to his doctors. If that happens, Bielefeld doesn’t know what else to do, he said.

“I’ve been a laborer all my life, and I have no education,” he mused. “It’s all questions I have in my head, but no answers.”

The injury came months before a different tragedy. Bielefeld’s wife, Jennifer Harrington, died from an overdose earlier in October. She was buried Oct. 6.

A year ago, Bielefeld was a tough guy, pulling big paychecks. He had a nice home in Evansville, where he lived with his wife’s son, whom Bielefeld had partially raised. Now, his life revolves around physical therapy and the boy’s school day. He moves slowly as if he’s afraid a sudden movement will hurt.

“It changes everything,” Bielefeld said of the injury, gingerly navigating his living room. David Bowie played in the background as 9-year-old Ryan Cromwell kicked his heels from a stool and ate cereal.

Bielefeld is slender and tall. His cropped hair is a blonde gray and thinning at the crown. His eyes are a frosty blue. They cloud over and his voice wavers when he talks about his and Ryan’s future.

Like many guys in the boom and bust industries, Bielefeld had a backup plan. If roughnecking fell through, he could use his commercial driver’s license and become a truck driver.

He’s not sure he can do that anymore, certainly not anytime soon.

“I probably couldn’t handle it. But that was my backup. (The injury) took that away from me.” At his age, learning a new trade is difficult at best. He has a high school diploma but no college education. When Ryan, a fourth-grader, needs help with his homework, Bielefeld turns to Google. After selling his second truck and his boat, Bielefeld’s afraid he’ll lose his house, too. Soon, he’ll receive an injury rating from a state doctor for worker’s compensation. That figure will determine how much money he receives.

He’s frightened it won’t be enough.

In his highest-earning year, Bielefeld made a grand short of $100,000. For the time being, he receives two checks a month for disability, one for $1,500 and one for about $1,400. The first barely covers the mortgage. The other is for bills and card debt left over from better days.

The reality is, Bielefeld didn’t expect anything to happen. If he hadn’t been hurt, he would be out working today, he said.

“To a roughneck that gets hurt like I did, (I advise) sell everything,” he said. “Get the heck out of it and go the cheapest you can. I just didn’t know.”

Another tragedy

It’s a short drive up the road from Bielefeld’s split-level home to Evansville Elementary. Casper’s first snow of the season glittered on the grass and a fog had begun to roll in as Bielefeld climbed out of his truck to give Ryan a hug goodbye. Each step of the routine took effort. He bent stiffly to wrap an arm around the boy. The boy reached up gingerly to return the embrace.

“I love you,” they told each other.

Ryan’s mother was 21 years younger than Bielefeld. The couple met in Casper when Ryan was just 6 weeks old. They moved in together immediately and Bielefeld, who’d raised a family of his own with his ex-wife, stepped in as Ryan’s dad.

Jennifer had a history of drug abuse and was in prison when Bielefeld was injured.

When she got out, Bielefeld tried to hide the severity of the family’s financial situation from his wife. He embarrassed her at a health center when he raged against a $30 fee. He just felt that she deserved something after prison - health insurance or a financial stepping stone. The system leaves people stranded, he said.

The day Jennifer died, Bielefeld was cooking chicken soup. She was upstairs in the shower, and Ryan was home. The laundry was running, he remembers.

Bielefeld put the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the television and watched for about a half an hour as the soup simmered. He walked up the carpeted stairwell to the second floor and approached the bathroom to offer his wife some comfort food.

She was slumped forward under the running water, dead from an overdose. Bielefeld was too weak to lift her from the water.

“I couldn’t rescue her,” he said.

A different pace

After dropping Ryan off at school, Bielefeld headed back home, aching from the previous day’s physical therapy and the cold autumn air.

It would be another day with nothing to do. He tries to keep the house clean. He goes to therapy twice a week. He walks the dogs.

Mostly he just waits. He waits to see how much money he’ll receive, waits to pick up Ryan, waits to get full custody of the boy.

“I’m mad. That’s all I can say. I’m mad about it because it’s not just that I can’t do (my job) no more, it’s that I can’t do stuff for my family,” he said, his voice wavering. “I always walk behind Ryan. I can’t even get the big, cheaper dog food no more. So, yeah, I’m mad.”

___

Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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