The Men That Shaped Me

***My Friend Dave

I first got to know Dave Hampton in 1972. He was a successful underground utility contractor and very well respected in the business. My first subcontract was working for him installing water lines in Burnet, Texas.

It was actually more complicated than that. I was a sub to another sub that subcontracted to Dave’s company. That happens in our business a lot. Ok if you aren’t too confused I’ll continue.

Throughout the 1970’s I worked with Dave several times. He had an enormous capacity for numbers. I learned a lot from him. There came a time in the 80’s they I couldn’t bond the size of jobs (that’s terminology meaning I couldn’t handle the business / financial end of the business to satisfy the size company I had) so Dave came along to help me.

He must have trusted my judgement because he backed me on many multi-million dollar projects, never asking for numbers from me prior to entering in to contracts on my behalf. He was located in Lubbock and I was in Austin. A phone call allowed me to bid any job that I desired.

Dave had the ability to handled more work from the business / financial side than he had the employees to actually do the work. So a very mutually beneficial arraignment was entered into. We continued do work as a team for several years, that was only interrupted by his deciding to retire and my decision to sell an interest in my company.

Dave and I help to establish a statewide association in 1987 that looked after the interests of our industry and we traveled with our wives to many locations around the country, including regular trips to Washington DC.

Dave was a pilot and alway flew his own plane. He, as a young man flew in WW-ll. If you ever watch an old war movie and they talk about “flying over the hump”, that is in reference to flying over Himalayas, where many planes were lost to the treacherous conditions. Dave flew in that campaign and came home safely. He was a great pilot and a great man.

I flew with him many times. I always knew if Dave was at the controls, there was nothing to worry about. He had a $1.5 million turbo-prop plane. The nicest plane in it’s class.

One day in 1992 I got a call from Betty, Dave’s wife. After a 50 year flying career, he had flown from Lubbock to Pagossa Springs, Colorado where they had a second home. He dropped Betty off at the airport. He just wanted to fly some more to enjoy the beautiful scenery and fly for a while longer.

Why he flew into the side of a mountain was never known.

But he died, doing what he loved.

The next story is one that involved Dave and a few other men at the start of one of the larger project that I was involved in during my earlier days. It was my first feeling of real accomplishment. i think because of the way I handled the situation with this old woman, Dave decided to take a chance on me and was willing to back me in ways no one else would.

Mrs. Little

Back in 76 we were needing something to do. (That is what we say in the construction business when our inventory of work has been depleted) An acquaintance of ours, a competitor, had landed a big project up in North Texas, in the Possum Kingdom Area. It was more work than his crews could adequately handle, so we contracted for part of the project. We would be laying a 10 mile long segment of 24” water line. I was only 24 years old at the time. Madeline, our not yet 2 year old son Matthew and I relocated to that area for a six month time, the first half of that year.

As the project got underway, I thought it would be a good idea to go along the route where the pipeline was going and meet the landowners and try to get some goodwill started. I told the owner’s rep and the inspector of my intentions. They said that was a great idea, but cautioned me about the third landowner up the line. I would just need to go easy with this one, walk softly. Her name was Mrs. Little.

In the negotiations for the project, no one thought to bring up that everyone that came close to Mrs. Little’s property had been cussed at, threatened, even with a gun and made to feel unwelcome. She didn’t want the thing coming through her property and they had even resorted to going to court and using condemnation to obtain right of way.

Nervously I approached the front gate of her place, cautiously making my way to the front door. I was met by an angry old, leathery skinned, short, squatty woman that I guessed to be in her early 80’s. With introductions out of the way, I explained, the best I could how we were going to be wanting to enter her property and clear a bunch of brush out of way and blast out a big ditch to lay this water line in. She didn’t say anything so I kept on talking. By this point we had already made our way from the little stoop at the front door to the living room. I explained that we would do everything possible to minimize the disturbance to her life. I guess I hadn’t figured out exactly how we were going to accomplish that, since the line was no more than 50 yards behind her house. But I guess we would figure out something.

I noticed that as I talked, she reached over to a little box of chocolates a couple of times and had one. She didn’t offer me any, but I was so busy talking I wouldn’t have taken the time to eat it anyway. Somewhere along the way she mentioned that it was here birthday. She also told me how her husband had died young, she and a son were estranged many years before. “He just wanted money”. She had single handedly operated that ranch most of her adult life after her parents has passed on.

Madeline and the baby were yet to relocate there so knowing I’d be eating out that night, I ask her if she would like to go with me out to the Hubbard Creek Steakhouse for dinner that night? We could celebrate her birthday and besides it would keep me from eating alone. She said she thought that would just be great. She hadn’t been out like that in years.

When I got there to pick her up at the appointed time, I walked up the sidewalk with a huge box of chocolate candies. I had found them at an old timey drug store in Breckenridge. I’m not sure I’d ever seen a box of chocolates that big. I was very pleased with the find.

She was dress and ready to go. She was real short, so I helped her up into the pickup. It was a 4-wheel drive that was a way off the ground. I was extra careful to not touch her inappropriately as I assisted her. We made the 30 or 40 minute drive to the steakhouse. We walked into the huge dining room and seated at a big table was Dave (the guy we were subbing from), the inspector and about 6 of the land men and executives for TP Oil, the company we were working for.

The hostess seated us across the room from the table of the group I knew. I made sure I had full view of the table. There was a buzz going on over there for the rest of the evening. That became a night that was remembered and talked about for the rest of that project and maybe well afterwards.

I got to know Mrs. Little even more over the course of the next few months. We rode her ranch together, helped her feed cows and she even became our gate sitter. When she would hear a truck or a piece of equipment coming, she would high tail it out and open the gate for them. She didn’t want those men losing time getting out to open and close a gate.

She complained that she didn’t have a stock tank on one section of her property so I sent a bulldozer over to make her one. He got started and hit rock a few feet down. I could tell she was disappointed. She was so happy to finally be getting water in that pasture, only to have those hopes dashed because of geology. I sent a track drill over and blasted a giant hole out for her new stock tank and we hauled clay harvested from another area to line the blasted rock with so it would hold water.

I only saw her angry once, and that time was reminiscent of the stories I’d heard from all the guys in the beginning. This is what happened: I had and old ornery loader operator, Bill Deets and he was coming down the ROW one day. When Mrs. Little heard him she ran out to open the gate. The version of the story varied depending on him or her telling it.

He said every time he’d come along she would climb up on his loader and want to talk and never shut up so he ask her “Mrs. Little, do you ever get the hungry’s for a man”. To which she almost fell out of the cab trying to get away from him.

She said she went to open the gate and he made a pass at her. She demanded that Mr. Deets never enter her property again. While I couldn’t promise her that I told her to watch and if it was that piece of equipment coming, just make him get off and open the gate himself. That appeased her and that was the end of that.

I think she was a little old woman that just wanted to be heard and not pushed around, but for sure she didn’t need Bill Deet’s companionship.

I was back up there a few years later. Everything was grown up around the house. I never did figure out what happened with here. I always wondered if the son inherited the place our how she handled her will.

My Friend Udo

Udo was my neighbor, my friend and my mentor.

The first day of 1977, Madeline and I moved into a house on a very quite secluded south Austin street. Albert Rd was like being in another place altogether. It just wasn’t like living in Austin.

Directly across the street was a large 2 story house, with a horse stable in the back. Esther and Udo were the elderly couple that lived there. (of course now I realize I’m older now than that elderly couple was then) I was familiar with the their last name. It was on many trucks and pieces of equipment around Austin. Haufler Excavating Co. was a very well known and respected business around central Texas.

We became good friends almost instantly. Esther was very business savvy. She and her first husband had own an east Texas Lincoln Mercury Dealership. When he died at a much too early age, she sold the business and had moved to Austin. Udo, a big hulk of a German had been a trader his whole life. Sometime in the early 1960’s He & Esther became acquainted, married and owned a car business in downtown Austin. Somewhere along the way he got involved in the excavating business and became very good at it. They were an excellent team, the Haufler’s.

They were getting to retirement age so they started selling off equipment. He approached me about buying his yard and office. We made a deal and then I bought several trucks and other machines from him. That became the home for Lewis Contractors for about a decade.

Udo always said what he thought. I don’t think he and I ever had a cross word. Madeline didn’t always think as highly of him. His German frankness left her shaking her head more than once. We only had one son when we moved in. Matthew was 2 1/2 and she was pregnant with Michael. The other three were born during the time we were neighbors. So they actually watched as our family grew up right across the street.

It was a typical comment for him to say, shortly after her having another child, “sweetheart you sure are going to have to get after that weight problem”. Or “don’t you think maybe it would be good for you to get out and walk more, it’ll help you slim up”. Needless to say she avoided him as much as possible.

I literally went over almost nightly for years for my Udo visit. He liked young people and I liked old people. So we got along just fine.

He had so many interests. He was constantly buying and selling vehicles, ranches, anything he could make money on. He seldom lost on anything.

He owned the BMW and Moto Guzzi Motorcycle dealership in Austin for years. He had a love for fine motorcycles. He had the contract with Austin Police Department for their motorcycles for several years. He really enjoyed that relationship.

He was involved in many business ventures.

Esther had a love of horses. She traveled and showed horses for years. They were a very classy couple. They knew everyone. Through those connections I was able to meet a lot of people.

He had been a pilot and had owned planes most of his adult life. Nice planes too. Udo owned nothing but the best of everything. Shortly after retiring, he took up a new hobby. Helicopters. In his sixties he learned to fly them. He built a helipad behind his house and a huge hanger.

He started buying and selling only the best Helicopters made. Bell Jet Rangers were his passion.

He still had a love of seeing dirt turning over on jobs and seeing machines work. So anytime I wanted he was more than happy for us to jump in a Jet Ranger and go tour my jobs.

By 1985 the Austin ISD push for desegregation and was the hot topic. We did as many others did. We left Austin rather than see our children bussed all over the city to school. We moved to Dripping Springs, 25 miles southwest of Austin.

Udo and Esther had a couple of ranches in that area and were spending more and more time out there. So we still had a lot of contact.

By 1992 we had relocated to Bertram. Udo and I still talked and visited often. In April of 1993 I received a call from Esther. She told me that Udo had crashed his Jet Ranger outside of Oakhill, Texas. He was 78.

He had lost his pilots license some time before due to heart problems, but he had a host of pilot friends he could count on that would gladly log time with him. Nothing was going to keep him out of the air.

One day he had his chopper in the shop for maintenance. He and a mechanic took it up for a quick spin. The tail rotor came off and he was unable to control it. No license therefore no insurance. That was the loss of a million dollar asset to the Haufler estate.

The mechanic’s family sued and Mrs. Haufler had to liquidate a good portion of her assets to satisfy the judgement.

Udo was a very caring person. I just think he had no idea that a crash could ever happen to him. He was a great pilot and he knew it. But it was a mechanical malfunction that got them.

I miss my visits with him. He was truly a one of a kind.

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