Thomas Wictor


The Man Who Made Sense of It All

My father Edward Joseph Anthony Wictor died at 2:00 a.m. on February 23, 2013. He was eighty-four years old, in hospice, and in a coma, but his death took all the nurses and the chaplain by surprise. They’d never seen anyone die so fast. I wasn’t surprised, because when Dad did things, he jumped in with both feet. He gave everything his all. And how.

When he smoked, he smoked five packs of cigarettes a day. When he drank, he drank up to two quarts of scotch a day. A cheese addict, he ate hunks of cheddar the length and width of a credit card but two inches thick. His diet consisted mainly of ham, cheddar and Swiss cheese, salami, French bread, ice cream, cookies, cake, pie, steaks, roasts, baked beans, and enough bacon to flesh out a herd of pigs that would’ve blanketed half the continent, like the buffalos did two centuries ago. Nobody told Dad what to do, not even his diabetes or his quintuply bypassed heart.

The Eternal Enigma

Although I knew of my father for fifty years, I didn’t know him at all. He will always remain a mystery to me, which is what he wanted. I know he was born in Iowa in 1928 and had a younger brother named Ken. He was in the Coast Guard from 1948 to 1951, he married my mother in 1959, and he worked for Exxon. Beyond that, I’m pretty much in the dark. Dad simply preferred to keep his past, his thoughts, and most of his feelings to himself.

What he left behind was an inheritance that allows me complete freedom for the rest of my life. He also gave me the best baseball cap I ever had. It’s the only one I’ve owned that fit my colossal head. And he said one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard, when we were talking about the concept of negotiating with terrorists.

“Can you reason with a wasp?”

Darkness and Light

He was an extremely difficult if not impossible man, and he was astonishingly gifted. Physically, there may not have been a stronger person ever born of woman. His intellect was terrifying, and he was a woodworker of remarkable skill. If anything in life gave him pleasure, it was making wooden toy dragons—always with wings, indicating a subconscious search for knowledge and clarity. What really defined him, however, was his superhuman willpower.

When he decided to do something, he did it, regardless of the obstacles in his way. I don’t think he was ever deterred once in his life after he’d made up his mind.

The desires of others played no part, and neither did the impact his actions had on anyone except himself. He did what he wanted because “That’s the way it is.”


Dad never exercised a day in his life, except when he was in the Coast Guard. One of his many doctors’ receptionists had a remarkable insight into Dad that I think is accurate: As a boy during World War II, Dad saw tons of American propaganda newsreels, most of which described the Germans as “supermen.” Since Dad self-identified as a German, I think he believed that his incredible physical strength and stamina would never diminish.

When he was eighty-one years old, he cut down about five tons of foliage from a historical monument he’d decided to improve. He rented a dumpster the size of a billionaire’s yacht and filled it to the brim, working alone because that was how he preferred to do things. He told me a few months before he died, “Until I was seventy-five, I honestly thought I’d live forever.”

One Story Will Have to Do

After his doctor confirmed that he had terminal cancer, Dad finally admitted that he’d been in terrible pain for months. We tried various painkillers and settled on Oxycontin and morphine.

For one day, before the disease took over his mind, Dad lost the reserve he’d had his entire life, and he told me a story about himself. It’s a truly unbelievable tale of strength, perseverance, and willpower.

I wrote it all down, which is good because by the next evening he’d already departed. His body lived on for three more hellish weeks, but he was no longer my father. He became the incarnation of all his terrors, dysfunctions, and failings. For nearly a month, he existed in a state of no-holds-barred madness, lost in time and refusing to accept the fate that he created by ignoring his cancer for two years.

Can You Leave if You Were Never There?

It’s strange to contemplate the fact that the most influential person of my life was a total stranger. In 1985 he announced that he’d turned over a new leaf and we could now communicate without fear. His announcement took the form of a one-hour lecture. I tried several times to ask him questions, but he kept saying, “Let me finish.”

When he was done, I knew that nothing had changed, as desperately as he may have believed it had.

I participated in his Last Rites at the hospice, and although he was in a coma, he reacted violently when I forgave him for his sins and worse. The chaplain assured me that he could hear us. She and the nurses said that they’d been working in hospice for so long that they could tell when a person was about to die. Dad had a long way to go.

The End

I went home, and about eight hours later my brother Tim called and said that Dad had died. The nurses checked him and saw that nothing had changed. His vital signs were strong. When they looked in on him ninety minutes later, he was gone.

What happened was he’d decided to die, and he did it. I’d made my peace with him, and the chaplain told him that he had to make his peace with the rest of his family.

“In here, Edward,” she said as she touched his chest.

Dad made his peace, and then he jumped in with both feet. I’d like to think that my forgiveness helped him along, but maybe someone else showed up and assured Dad that there was no trapdoor that would drop him into flames.

Another Legacy

An hour after he died, as I sat at my computer and wrote about it, I was overwhelmed with the scent of Old Spice, which was Dad’s aftershave of choice during his days as an oil executive. He hadn’t worn it since he retired. I felt a presence behind me, on the right, and then the smell and sensation of proximity vanished.

I’m a firm believer that we have a soul and that it survives the cratering of our fragile, disease-prone bodies. Wherever Dad is, he seems to be happy. I’m glad. Even though I didn’t know him, I know what terrified him, and I’m certain that his fear hasn’t come to pass.

Since Dad died we’ve had strange little…tantrums take place in our houses, but I think that’s just the part of him that made the awful choices. It hasn’t yet moved on.

Ask and You Will Be Forgiven

For those of you who share my father’s fear, you have no reason to be afraid. If you say two simple words—just three syllables—and mean them, all will be well. And now, the only story my father ever told me about himself.

After leaving the Coast Guard in 1951, Ed attended the South Dakota School of Mines, where he earned a degree in geological engineering. He was recruited by Creole Petroleum Corporation in 1954 and sent to Venezuela. They said he would use his degree to find oil deposits.

At the time, Creole was in the process of restructuring, due to the low price of oil.

We Did Say That, But We Lied

The company decided that it would replace most of its workers with engineers, figuring that the higher caliber of employee would mean that fewer people could do a lot more work and do it more efficiently.

When Ed arrived in Venezuela in 1955 at the age of twenty-seven, he was told that he would be used in the production side of the company, not the exploration side. This meant that he would have to learn the oil business from the bottom up. He was completely unfamiliar with the equipment used, the terminology, the technology, the drilling and refining processes—everything.

Ed thought he’d been hired to look at rock samples and determine whether or not recoverable oil lay within reach. The Creole headhunter had conned him.

Sink or Swim—in Spanish

Ed’s introduction to the oil business was an old Creole hand telling him, “Around here, you’re known as ‘fuckin’ engineers,’ got it?”

The first day of hands-on experience began with Ed and another engineer being taken by launch out to an oil platform in Lake Maracaibo to learn the ropes from the platform supervisor, a Venezuelan.

The supervisor didn’t speak English and Ed didn’t speak Spanish. Once again the Creole headhunter had made promises that the company had no intention of keeping. Ed had been told that he’d be working in a lab, examining rock samples that Spanish speakers simply brought in.

Since the supervisor and Ed couldn’t communicate verbally, the supervisor had to silently pantomime the process of drilling a borehole into the lake floor, inserting the steel casing, pouring in cement between the casing and the sides of the borehole, and cutting the perforations in the casing that passes through the production zone. These perforations allow the oil to flow from the rock into the production tube.

The Stabber, She Do This, You See?

As Ed was unfamiliar with all the terms and concepts even in English, he was utterly baffled. When the platform supervisor took out a sheet of paper and stabbed it several times with a pencil to represent the perforations in the casing, Ed wondered if the man had lost his mind.

He may have; right before Ed and his companion had come aboard, the supervisor had dealt with the specialist who cut the perforations in the casing. He was a haughty Frenchman who spoke no Spanish and couldn’t tell the supervisor where in the casing he’d made the perforations. He’d departed by launch without leaving the supervisor a report in any language.

Over a period of weeks, Ed learned both Spanish and the drilling business. He never studied Spanish, picking it up entirely on the fly from his Venezuelan colleagues, and he was never given any formal instruction in the production side of the oil industry. Everything he learned he figured out himself, since he was a “fuckin’ engineer” that none of the old timers wanted to help.

It didn’t matter to Ed. He’d show them that he didn’t need their help.

Pipes Are Important, Apparently

His first real job for Creole was to create drawings of all the pipes and valves used on flow stations, where oil from wells was collected for primary treatment before it was pumped ashore. Flow stations were square platforms on pylons, connected by pipes to wellheads.

The pipes rose from the lake floor, curved over the edge of the flow station, and entered separators, where the natural gas was removed from the crude oil. The gas was collected in two or three tanks, while the oil was collected in four to six tanks. The gas and oil were then pumped into storage tanks, from which they were transferred to tanks onshore.

Pipes from wellheads entered manifolds, pipes from the manifolds entered the separators, pipes from the separators entered the natural-gas and oil tanks, pipes from the natural-gas and oil tanks entered pumps, pipes from the pumps entered the storage tanks, and pipes from the storage tanks entered the onshore tanks.

Who Needs Schematics? Not Us!

Each pipe connection had valves. It was vital that the platform crews understood which valves operated which piece of machinery, especially each well cluster. Depending on the price of oil, certain well clusters would be shut down if they produced oil that was too expensive to refine. Closing the wrong valves could shut off the wrong supply of oil, costing the company millions during a period when the oil industry already struggled.

The problem was that there were no schematics for the pipe systems on any of the flow stations. Each supervisor learned the complex network of pipes for his own station, and when he was transferred, retired, or died, he took the secret with him. The next supervisor had to start over from scratch.

Ed was ordered to produce drawings of each pipe and valve on each flow station. He had no experience illustrating machinery in two dimensions. All he had going for him was his years in the family hardware store, a job he’d taken at the age of twelve. It’s safe to say that he understood the workings of every single mechanical device created in every single epoch of history.

The Cartoonist at Work

Engineering schematics were no good because the men couldn’t read them. Instead, Ed was to create what were basically cartoons. There were 130 flow stations in Lake Maracaibo. The connections between the pipes from the wellheads and the manifolds were located beneath the wooden planking of the platform. Ed went to a hardware store and bought a five-foot-long crowbar, a sledgehammer, a clipboard, drafting paper, pencils, a tape measure, and a plumb line. Every morning he was taken by launch to a flow station and dropped off.

First he used the plumb line to measure the depth at which an individual wellhead pipe lay on the lake floor. He then took the crowbar and sledgehammer and pried up the planking to expose the valve between the pipe and the manifold. The planks were three inches thick, held by railroad spikes six to eight inches long.

Once he’d pried up the planks, Ed had to climb down into the hole in order to draw the valve in three dimensions.

Into Your Crawlspace, Engineer!

The space between the deck and the base of the platform was thick with thirty-five years’ worth of spilled crude oil. After he had drawn the valve, Ed replaced the planking and pounded in the railroad spikes with his sledgehammer. He then moved on to the next valve and repeated the process.

Flow stations could have as many as seventy pipes leading into the manifolds. Once Ed had drawn all the pipes and valves from the wellheads, he drew the pipes and valves from the manifolds to the separators. Then he drew the pipes and valves from the separators to the gas and oil tanks. Then he drew the pipes and valves from the gas and oil tanks to the pumps. Then he drew the pipes and valves from the pumps to the storage tanks. Then he drew the pipes and valves from the storage tanks to the onshore tanks.

When he finished one flow station, he began the next. Measure with a plumb line, pound with a sledgehammer, pry with a crowbar, crawl into an oily cave, draw, crawl out, and pound with a sledgehammer again.

Sense Made at Last

Ed did this all day, six days a week, for about seven months. He arrived home each night covered in oil and tar. A shirt and pair of pants lasted only from Monday to Saturday, so he bought clothes as often as groceries. When he’d drawn every pipe and valve on every flow station in Lake Maracaibo, the cartoons—about eighteen thousand of them—were reproduced in the company printing plant, bound into books, and distributed to the proper platforms.

After thirty-five years, thus did Creole Petroleum Corporation figure out which pipe went where in Lake Maracaibo, as well as how to prevent financial catastrophe by accidentally shutting off the wrong valves. And it was thanks to a twenty-seven-year-old geological engineer from Iowa, who arrived in Venezuela not speaking the language and not knowing a wellhead from a vampire bat.

Almost Seen

Dad was a music fanatic. The only time he didn’t have tapes, CDs, or the radio going was when he was asleep, so his memorial page needed music. This song by Stephen Jay absolutely blew me away. Then Stephen told me that he used his father’s old bugle to record the horn passage, one of the most haunting I’ve ever heard.

I call Stephen the “undisputed master of musical presque vu,” meaning his music and lyrics create that tip-of-the-tongue experience, an almost-seen meaning. These lyrics are appropriate for a memorial to Dad, although I can’t tell you why.

My father was almost glimpsed, but he exited my life as profound a mystery as the unexplainable talent of Stephen Jay.

Now, now that the coast is clear
In the middle of believable dreams
Go unfed, broken idols
Something’s got to be falling, out of the way
On treading our thoughts away
Keep the fire, no sign or scent of fate
Probably lead somewhere

©2008 Ayarou Music BMI. Reprinted with permission.

At my request, Scott Thunes recorded his interpretation of the Gentle Giant song “Empty City” on bass alone, for me to put on this memorial page.

When I played it for Mom, she said, “That’s your father, all right.”

Empty City


Without ever meeting Dad, Scott captured him.

An incredible feat, since nobody in Dad’s family was able to capture him in over fifty years.