Well… it wasn’t exactly Topeka. That’s just where I was told we were going when I asked.

“Some God-forsaken hellhole by Topeka.” I had no idea what he was talking about.

“What’s so hellhole-ish about a job near Topeka?”

“You’ll find out, new guy.”

The whole thing was a mystery and I got nothing but enigmatic responses to any question about this job. Yea, I was the new guy among this group of men. They all seemed to know exactly what they were headed for. I could tell that they were not looking forward to whatever it was, but no one seemed to want to talk about it.

And it was a long drive.

For at least five hours I was squashed in the back seat of a company Ford F250 Crew Cab, one of several work trucks full of men being sent from Omaha to this job site. I was in the middle so I could barely see out the window. Our foreman was in a different truck and no one else was talking so questions from “new guy” were mostly ignored.

It was not a good environment to start making friends, so I didn’t try. I sat in silence like the rest. More than five hours of tension. And when we got to the site, that tension rose to levels as toxic as the rest of what we were about to do.

What we were about to do…

During the drive I was able to get a little information about that from the guy behind the wheel. He seemed to be the only one in our truck with any authority and so when I asked a specific question about the job, he would at least give me an answer. An incomplete answer but at least I got that.

“What kind of roof are we doing?”


“We’re putting on a tar roof?”


“What’s so bad about that?”

“You ever spread tar?”


“You ever worked a kettle?”


“Well, you won’t be doing any of that anyway new guy.” The rest of the men chuckled along with him as he turned and gave me a smart-assed wink, lit another cigarette and continued.

“First we gotta do the pitch n tar tear off.”

“What’s that?”

“You’ll find out new guy.”

Great, I now had less of an idea of what was to be expected of me than before. The guy squashed up against me asked if I had everything. I nodded that I did. I’d been told to bring a heavy coat and boots, gloves and a stocking cap. I’d find out why when we got to our destination and got to work.


The Osawatomie State Hospital is the oldest state psychiatric institution in Kansas. Established in either 1855 or 1866 (depending on what source you use) it was originally named the “Kansas Insane Asylum”. The company that hired me had been contracted to put new tar roofing on all the flat roof buildings. They had been built sometime in the fifties, I think. It’s a large complex and I couldn’t see much beyond my immediate surroundings. I could see however, that there were a lot of buildings to put tar roofing on.

But first we had to tear off the old roofing. When we rolled up to the first building, there was already a crew on top. It was windy and an ugly dust was blowing all over them. I could barely see the men as they scrapped, shoveled, wheel-barrowed and threw the ugly, dusty mess over into the chute. Down into a large bin. The dust was everywhere and I didn’t have to be in it (I would be soon enough) to see that it was toxic.

Our foremen started shouting for us to all gather round. He needed us to get our masks and goggles right away and get to work. It was already past noon and we had a lot of catching up to do before we could break for the day.

Our foreman seemed a likable guy and I trusted him right away. I could also see that he didn’t much like what he was doing here. Of course I only saw the surface at this point. I couldn’t have known (and I never knew completely) the toxic tension HE was dealing with.

But I’d learn quite a bit about that later. After nearly two weeks of working this hellhole of a job and the ride back, I leaned plenty.

Much of it was toxic.