By Erin Nelsen, Online Editor
For Jerry Schild, the last 18 months have brought a lot of changes. But adapting to his new career in the pipeline industry hasn’t been too difficult so far.
In the year and a half since Schild, 54, joined Pipeliners Local 798, he’s been on three projects. The heat and speed of right-of-way work seem to play to his strengths—Schild has raced cars semiprofessionally for most of his life.
He won the Texas state championship in 2003 and came in second in 2004. He even earned some national attention as a younger man: five NASCAR races “with the big guys,” including an 8th-place finish at Darlington in 1974.
In fact, as a racing lifer and long-time hand around the Cricket NASCAR Modified circuit in Houston, Schild knew a lot of the pipeline industry’s names and faces before his first project.
“When I started racing I drove in the all-gas business. I worked for Red Adair, the oilfield firefighter, as a kid. He was friends with Rush Johnson, who owned Rush Johnson and Associates, and they were the worldwide adjustors and appraisors for Lloyd’s of London on oil and gas rigs and wells.” Johnson sponsored Schild’s racing for five years, including his time at the national level. “My dad actually knew Red way before I was born,” Schild said.
“Dad tells a story about Red and [Red’s colleagues] Boots and Coots. They all ran together at the racetrack when he was just starting his business. Red tried to get Dad to go to work for him. Boots and Coots did, but Dad said, ‘I don’t know anything about that.’
“Later [Red] sponsored me in Texas. I raced with people like the Laneys, who owned Laney Directional; they used to run at the big H dirt track, which is now Houston Motorsports Park. Curtis Payne had Yellow Jacket Construction, which was a pipeline company—I knew all these people, but I never thought I would be standing on the right-of-way at my age,” Schild says.
Schild’s kind of racing is hard to keep up between pipeline jobs, due to the amount of time and energy it takes. But it isn’t just pipelining that’s taken a toll on his body in the last year. While working on a Sheehan Pipe Line project in Orange, TX, this spring, Schild was also preparing to donate a kidney to a sister with polycystic kidney disease.
He didn’t deliberate for long about the offer.
“When she told us [about the disease] a couple of years ago I told her to let me know if she needed one,” Schild recalls. He and his niece, Gina Mitchell, both offered to be tested as potential donors, but because Mitchell has small children, Schild decided that it would be better if he went through the ordeal.
The time came when Schild’s sister, Linda High, was reduced to 10 percent functionality in one kidney, with the second not working at all. With Schild more than a hundred miles away on the Sheehan project, getting his blood and High’s to the same place at the same time required some creativity.
“We just had to schedule. I looked through a phonebook and found a lab that was close by, within five miles from the job site. So I talked to the boss and said I may need a little longer lunch . . .”
They sent the sample by FedEx and the rest was history.
“When it gets there, everything turns out good. I’m a match.” It was just a question of balancing the demands of the job with the rigors of the rest of the necessary testing and preparation.
Schild’s commitment to the pipeline project meant some uncertainty on exactly when he could finish his testing.
“I didn’t want to leave until it was time to go. There were layoffs in stages as [the project] wound down — I was probably about two from the end. I got all my stuff scheduled, my six trips downtown to the Texas Medical Center. I had holes all over me from the blood work they pulled,” he says.
The transplant itself took place April 15, weeks after Schild finished his work on the Sheehan project. Schild and his sister were on the same floor, just a few doors away, unusual for kidney transplants at that hospital. The proximity made it easy for their visitors.
“They had us on the same floor, four rooms apart. She’s in one pre-op, I’m in the other one and all the family’s just circling — at five in the morning!”
As for the surgery, “I wasn’t ever concerned – not with all those doctors there,” he recalls.
After the operation, Schild was on doctor’s orders to rest and heal for a few weeks. A man who’s spent his life in high-energy pursuits, he didn’t find the rest easy. It was a risk for his working life, too, though he’d been cleared to continue with physical work once healed. His name was on the union out-of-work list, not the sick list, and he could be called out to a new job at any time, whether his six to ten weeks of doctor-mandated rest were up or not.
Then, of course, there were a few consequences he hadn’t thought about. The pain of the donation he shrugs off. But the pain of day-to-day labor is another story.
“I took a lot of ibuprofen for aches and pains, especially in my shoulders and back, but they told me to stop because it was hard on my kidney. They told me I can take acetaminophen. But I’ve had [problems with] both rotator cuffs, lower back fusion.”
While he was in town for the transplant, Schild visited his orthopedist. “He said, ‘Man, you need shoulder replacements!’ But when you do that, you can’t do manual labor, you can’t race. That’s what I do.” Schild is not ready to make those concessions, at least not for a few more years.
“I asked the doctor if he’d be doing it when I’m 70 and I retire, because for now, I can’t stop,” he says. For the time being, he’ll get by with regular cortisone shots instead.
Of course, it didn’t take Schild long to get back in the saddle. Staying there was another issue. Six weeks after the surgery, he was behind the wheel of his racecar. “I was racing a bit early,” he admits. He had to quit one race with fierce pain in his side. But with another pipelining project coming down the chute at any time, he didn’t want to miss the opportunity while he had it.
“I’m going to miss racing. Doing pipelining work, I have to race between jobs. Everywhere I get dispatched I ask if there’s a racetrack nearby. Like I’m going to take my car and work 12 hours a day, and then go racing on Saturday night. No, that’s not happening,” he says. Competing in a race requires all day Saturday plus several hours testing on Friday — and for the truly committed, work on the car every night.
The car will be sitting in the garage again for a while. At nine weeks into his recovery, Schild got a call for a project with Snelson in Rangely, CO. He’s looking forward to plying his trade in the cooler climate, at least while his health catches up to his ambition.
There’s plenty of hard work on the horizon now, but Schild isn’t worried. “Once I get through this one, you know, every day I get stronger. I just can’t miss this one. They say go – you gotta go!”