Once Upon A Time...

Saturday, 05 September 2015 00:00

     So once upon a time…no, wait.  That’s how you begin a fairy tale, and this is definitely not a fairy tale.  It is, however, from a time long ago.   And as I age, life has taught me a much deeper understanding of what was said on that day than any I could muster at that time, because I was young.  You know, like, 16—on the fault line between boyhood and being a man.  One moment I was preoccupied with how to get my first date with a girl, and the next all I could think about was how I’d get my next buck to buy a model airplane kit. 
     It was a bitterly cold winter day in December, 1969—one of those days between Christmas and the New Year, when nothing much is supposed to happen.  There’s that whole let-down thing to deal with after Christmas, because all those presents that you’d just spent months dreaming about weren’t nearly as much fun as you imagined they would be once you had them.  For you see, at that tender age, I had not yet discerned that it is a peculiarity of the human psyche that it is the wanting, not the having, that sharpens our senses and creates the yearning that is the best part of life.

       I was working in my father’s sawmill because I was the oldest boy in the family, and if I wasn’t in school, that’s where I was expected to be.  That was just the way my Daddy had been raised by his Daddy in his sawmill in east Texas, and likely the reason that as soon as my father graduated high school and could get the hell out of town—he did.  You know the drill: turn, turn, turn.
     The men with whom I was working were a rough bunch.  Most of them could not read or write, and resorted to an “X” whenever their signature was required.  Consequently, they were destined for a life of backbreaking labor—if they could find any work at all.  This was the bottom of the social barrel in Southern life, which meant that black folks and white worked side-by-side, each enduring their hard, simple lives with varying degrees of nobility, or lack thereof….
     They were often in and out of jail, but not because they were mean or even particularly mischievous, but because they had a predilection for getting drunk—no matter that the preacher was telling them every Sunday it was going to land ‘em for sure in hell.  Of course maybe they figured they were already there, and gettin’ “lit up” was about the only sure fire way of takin’ that big old knapsack-full of troubles that they carried on their shoulders, and if only for a few precious moments, puttin’ it down.  Now never mind that gettin’ drunk often just lead to more trouble; apparently such subtleties of life had either escaped their notice, or in the grand scheme of things, it was a tradeoff that they were willing to make.
     Looking back, it seems strange to me that no one seemed angry about their station in life, or if they were, never bothered to complain about it.  Probably figured no one was interested in hearing it, anyway.  Anybody listening had troubles of their own.
     My favorite in the group was Doc.  I don’t know if he had a last name, ‘cause if he did, nobody ever used it.  Doc was a little bitty scrap of a fella’, likely no more than about five feet tall, even in workboots.  Despite his diminutive size, however, Doc was a solid knot of muscles from the tip of his toes to the top of his balding head.  In addition to those muscles, Doc was also blessed with a radiant smile.  He almost never said anything other than “yes suh” and ‘no suh,’ in any conversation that I ever heard, but that man sure grinned a lot.   When he did, one was not only dazzled by the whiteness of the teeth that he still possessed, but also by a magnificent golden grill of fillings and caps that had been enlisted to fill the ranks of their fallen comrades.  And to top it all off, in the center of his right upper incisor he had a perfect, golden five-pointed star.   All this radiance was further amplified by the  velvety blue-black of Doc’s skin, and there was a wreath of salt and pepper hair about the base of his scalp—virtually the only thing about him that betrayed that, he was in fact, an old man.
     Of all the hard-assed men working in that mill, Doc was the only one who could “tail” the saw all day long.  This was probably the worst job in the mill, as it involved midwiving  gigantic planks of oak, hickory and poplar as they were spit out by the enormous saw that was at the heart of the mill.  After peeling a plank away from the teeth of the saw, Doc would then roll it down 40 feet or so to the place where the great boards were stacked, still rough hewn, waiting to be milled.  Most men were worn out within a few hours of wrestling with the monstrous boards.  Doc was the one man in the mill who could tail the saw all day long, even in the stifling heat of summer.  Everybody knew this, and everybody, black or white, respected him for it.
     Except for one man, Ben Crain.  He didn’t respect anyone.  He was the sawyer of the mill.  A giant of a man, he towered over a little fella’ like Doc.  He always wore the same uniform of blue overalls on top of a filthy white t-shirt (in fairness, given the nature of the work in a lumbermill, if you weren’t filthy, you were likely just vistin’), and a steel work hat.  He was built like a gorilla, but would never be confused with one, ‘cause he did have clothes on, and he was a veritable fountain of brown spit from the wad of chewing tobacco that he always kept tucked somewhere in his mouth.  Gorillas do not chew tobacco.  He rarely bothered to close all the buttons on his fly, a peculiarity of dress that seemed not so much a matter of carelessness, but a sort of snarl at the world, as if he didn’t give a damn about what anybody thought of him.  All of this made him a commanding figure in the eyes of the men, but they didn’t so much respect him, as were terrified by him.  He was one of the meanest son-of-a-bitches I have ever met.
     Yet even so, Ben did have some redeeming qualities.  For one, he was an artist when sharpening the 54-inch saw that kept the party going in this operation.  The man could also take a hell of a lot of abuse—working long hours in extreme conditions without fail.
     On this particular day, Ben had gotten the mill fired up as usual at first light.  The hard physical labor was actually somewhat welcome this time of year, as all that movin’ around helped beat back the bite of the cold north wind.    
     Things were pretty much rocking along as usual until about 10:30 that morning.  That’s when Ben lumbered out of the small building in the center of the mill that my Dad used for his office and told the men to shut the place down.
     “What’s going on?”  That was Earl, the forklift driver.  He was a pleasant enough fellow, kind of like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, in both build and demeanor. Like the scarecrow, he did not possess a tooth in his head.  Being edentulous, he had sunken jaws that always seemed to sport about three days’ growth.
     “Mr. Jim (that was my Dad—he owned the mill) got a long distance call from his brother in Texas.  He says their Momma died last night of a heart attack.”  That was Ben talking as he was drifting over toward the fire barrel.  “All you men, stop what you’re doing.”  He had raised his big, burly right arm as he spoke, and pointed his stubby index finger at each man.
     “The Boss said he wants to be left alone right now.  Don’t want anybody bothering him. Wants things quiet” he continued.
     Now a lumber mill when it’s up and running is a very noisy place, and so as each saw or machine was shut down in turn, an eerie silence descended upon us all.  It was as if the mill itself, so recently full of life, had also abruptly died.
     The men slowly joined Ben around the fire barrel.  They commenced to chatter, as it was one of those awkward moments when no one quite knows what to say.  The subject of death in conversation creates an inner tension between the horror we all feel about mortality and the need to maintain a façade of manly indifference, especially in this crowd.
     “How long we gonna’ be shut down, boss?” that was Shelby, wantin’ to know.
     “How the hell am I supposed to know?” Ben shot back, clearly still in his typical foul mood.
     “I remember when my momma died, why I just up and cried for days” Earl was saying.
     “Not me.  My momma was a bitch.  She was always whuppin’ me with a belt, and sendin’ me off to bed with no supper.  Many’s the night I’d lay in bed, my belly achin’, ‘cause I was hungry.  I’m glad she’s done died and gone to hell.”  That was Red, a thin, wiry fella’ with--what else--an eternally ruddy complexion, who always seemed a bit sullen and morose.  He never said much.
     By this time, I was wondering what was going on with my Dad, ‘cause he had shut himself in the office and hadn’t come out.  I slipped over to the door and knocked a bit tentatively, as I had learned you never wanted to piss my Dad off unless you were ready to pay the price. 
     No answer.  I leaned next to the door, to see if I could hear anything, but it was completely silent.
     I knocked again. 
     Still no answer.  I quietly reached up to the doorknob and turned it, but it was locked.  What in the hell was going on in there?
     I returned to the fire barrel.  Everyone had fallen silent, alone with their thoughts by this point.  I could see the fire itself through the large holes punched in the side of the barrel through which it sucked air.  I watched as the flames eddied contentedly about the scraps of lumber that had been used to feed it, hissing quietly as they went about their work.  It has always seemed paradoxical to me that one of the properties of fire (not unlike some people) is that it must consume the very stuff that is necessary for its existence, and will not quit until it has done so.
     I’d never seen my Dad act like this.  It made me wonder what was going to happen next.
     Doc was across the barrel from me, and seemed to sense that I was upset and confused.   Looking at me as he spoke, Doc addressed the group as if speaking to all of us and said, “You know fellas, when a man’s momma dies, he can’t never go home again.” 
     That’s all he said.  No one said anything in response.  The only sound was that of the wind and the hiss-crackle of the fire.
     My father eventually came out of the office after 15 minutes or so, and told me my grandmother had died.  He gave orders to get the mill up and running again, and everyone returned to work, relieved that things had gotten back to normal.  If my father felt any suffering, he did not show it, other than that brief hiccup when he had disappeared into his office.  It was the first time that I had ever seen my father falter—even for a moment.  Unfortunately, it would not be the last such time in the long months to come, but I could not know that at the time.
     It would be years before I would experience the unforeseen, sharp-brutal slap of the news of my own mother’s death.  It was only then that I fully understood what had happened that day.  Why my father paused, if only for a few moments, and the hard truth of what was so simply stated by Doc.  I have not heard any man state it any better, no matter their education, before or since.  So it seems that on that day, among his many fine qualities, I also learned that Doc was a poet.


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