FORAKER — James Coldren and wife Shari sat in the new Ford pickup on a January morning in 1991 and argued for a moment.
Shari insisted they go back to the ranch shop and get his gloved left hand, which had just been severed by the blade in the hydraulic press.
James didn't see the point. He said head east to the hospital 45 minutes away in Pawhuska.
The wife won.
And because she did, James has completed his 1,633rd belt buckle crafted from Watusi steer horns. That's the total just since he started keeping track of the buckles in 1994. The 48-year-old ranch foreman of Sooner Cattle Co. has no idea how many he'd cut out, pressed, branded and buffed from 1985 to 1994.
Regardless, it's not the quantity of what's he's done with the buckles that matters most.
It's the quality of the therapy the craft provided him that he and his wife treasure.
“The buckles are probably the only reason he really kind of got it moving,” Shari said of the reattached hand. “He didn't have any therapy. If he hadn't been determined to do it, that hand wouldn't be doing what it is right now.”
Today, a black Timex watch band fits snug around James' right wrist. Not a significant detail unless you realize why it's on that side.
An embedded scar rings his left wrist. That's right where the blade came down.
‘I was hurt bad'
On Jan. 23, 1991, James was in the shop at the ranch headquarters, a little ways from their house, with the horse barn in between.
He was cutting some big, heavy cable. This was to be used in a winch so they could load a cattle sprayer onto their trucks. The cable was in a 50-ton hydraulic press. The blade in it resembled an ax blade.
It was air over hydraulics. The person operating it would pull this lever down and the air would make the hydraulic cylinder go down and it would shear that cable.
At one point, he was getting ready to make a cut and the cable slid out the back. Out of reaction James reached with his left hand to grab it. There was a set of snow tire chains that go on a dual wheel truck hanging up by the machine.
The machine made a little vibration because of the air. Apparently one of the chains jiggled loose, fell and landed on the lever.
The blade came down and severed his gloved left hand close to the wrist.
Coldren, “bleeding terrible,” called Shari at the house and told her “I was hurt bad.”
“She didn't know how bad it was because I didn't tell,” he said.
Applying pressure wasn't working.
“I got in my truck and drove over here, I hung my arm out the window,” he said.
A wet towel wrapped around the injured limb, he got in the passenger side and Shari, who happened to be off work that day, left their son with a neighbor and got behind the wheel. She headed to the shop.
That's when the argument kicked in.
James asked her why. She said they were going to get the hand.
“I said, ‘There ain't no sense in that, what are they going to do with it?'” James recalled. “We argued about it. She said ‘Well, I'm not leaving without it.'”
They got the hand.
Shari made the 45-minute trip to Pawhuska in 20 minutes in the new Ford pickup.
“The drive to town scared me worse than anything,” he said. “Twenty miles of dirt road, driving 100 mph is scary, I'm telling ya, hitting the high spots and them bridges, I just knew we were going to crash and both be dead.”
From Pawhuska he was transported in a helicopter to a Tulsa hospital. When Coldren was in the trauma center, the hand surgeon came in and looked at the injury and gave a reattachment “a 50-50 chance to take.” Coldren told him to do it.
Nine hours later, the hand was back on.
He was in the hospital for about a week and wore a cast for nine months. Add to those numbers at least five more surgeries. He wore a brace for months, because when the cast was removed his hand was “locked solid.” So these braces stretched “all that stuff back to where it was more functional.”
The way it works
Today, when Coldren bends the left wrist, the fingers will straighten. When he straightens his wrist, the fingers curl. He didn't have feeling for more than a year. But the nerves began to grow.
Now he has noticed something that's a little different. If Coldren hurts his ring finger, his index finger will hurt. And when he hurts his pinkie, his middle finger will hurt.
“I can't gripe too much though,” he said. “The only thing that I can't do that I used to be able to do is play a guitar. That's what I miss the most.”
He can move his thumb by itself and his ring finger by itself, but if he moves his pinkie then his middle and index move as well.
Then he reaches for his latest cow horn buckle and rests it on the fingers of his left hand.
“This was therapy, this was the only therapy I had,” he said. “I made myself get out there.
“I made a lot of buckles with one hand because for a long time I had to have my arm like this up near my right collarbone, because the only way to really control the pain was to get it up above my heart.”
The day of the accident, did you think you'd ever use that hand again?
“No, I thought they'd probably just have to put a hook on it,” he said. “But right after the surgery I woke up and you could just see a little bit of my thumb, just the tip of it and I could move it and I thought, ‘Well I might … ”
Close to a year after the initial surgery, the pain was terrible. As the feeling started coming back, even the wind blowing against it “was horrible.” And then he was wearing the braces and couldn't sleep well with them on. James called the doctor and said it wasn't going to work, wanted the left hand taken off. The doctor told him not to give up. He said it would get better, and it did.
James more and more began to apply both hands to the making of the buckles. Placing the buckle in his hand on a work bench, James reaches over with this right thumb and middle finger to roll his wedding ring on his left hand. James said, “Shari was the real trooper.”
A trooper then and on July 3, 1998, the day she was working in a flower bed and a rattlesnake bit her. She lost her right ring finger as a result, but didn't let it bother her much.
She said, “Everybody has their moments, we just get along the best we can and hope things go in our favor.”
This lifetime ranch hand with about as much salt as pepper in his mustache doesn't let her off that easy.
“I couldn't have done this without her; she's way stronger than me,” he said. “I would have left it that day. I'm so glad she didn't let me.
“I wouldn't have this hand if it weren't for my wife.”