(The time setting for this story was 1971)
For a short time, the summer after my senior year, I worked in a lumber yard.
I have had worse jobs, but I can’t seem to remember them. The owners of this yard were miserable human beings and saw to it that all those around them were just as miserable. It was a family owned and operated business. Every one of them, from the old man who occasionally stopped by to deal out abuse to the two sons that actually ran the yard, were hard and unforgiving individuals.
Only a brother-in-law, who was the yard foreman, seemed to have any charity in his soul.
Because of my slight build (six foot, one-hundred and forty-five pounds) one of the jobs that fell to me was first man in when we unloaded boxcars of lumber. This lumber was cut in the far northwest, loaded into metal boxcars green and shipped to us in a small East Texas town in the middle of a Texas summer. By green, I mean these boards had a moisture content of about forty percent. These boxcars would wend there way south under the blazing sun, sometimes taking weeks to reach their destination. When they reached us, the metal on these boxcars was too hot to touch. Upon opening the doors, great clouds of steam would boil out into the relatively cool (101- 106 degF) air. The temperature inside these things must have been 120 degrees with the humidity around 200 percent (yea, I know that is impossible, you just had to be there).
Whoever loaded these things really knew how to get the most out of a given amount of space. They were literally packed to the gills. We would stand on ladders and pull boards out until there was enough space for me to crawl in and lay on my stomach with the top of the boxcar inches above my head. It actually rained inside there. The condensation would drip off the ceiling, soaking me only slightly faster than my own sweat, which erupted from me within seconds of entering the boxcar.
My job was to lay on my stomach, grab the end of sixteen foot two by twelve, ease it out the side door and down to the guys waiting on the ground to stack it on a fork lift to be carried to the drying sheds. Every time I stuck my head out the door to get a breath of relatively cool air, one of the owners would yell at me to not keep the men on the ground waiting. Like I said, a bunch off real sweet hearts.
One of the few perks of this job was going on a delivery to help unload the truck. Now, you might not think unloading a truck full of lumber would be very exciting. However, it got me out of the yard and away from the ever vigilant eyes of the aforementioned owners.
Plus, I could relax on the trip out and the trip back.
There was one run we made on a fairly regular basis. It was a pretty long trip, so we would load the truck the night before and be on the road early the next morning. The regular driver on this route had been born and raised in a small town along the way. We would stop at a small cafe in town for a cup of coffee and a sweet roll.
By the time we arrived the “regulars” were just finishing up breakfast. The main industry of this little town was agriculture and the men seated in this cafe had already put in what most people would consider a half-days hard work.
The cafe was set up like every Texas small town cafe I have ever seen. Booths lined the wall and no matter which one a person sat in, that was the one that had the sunken place in it, making you feel as if you were sitting in a hole. In the middle of the room was a large table with a multitude of chairs around it. This was the regulars table and you did not sit there unless invited.
As we walked in the chorus directed at my companion was nearly always the same. “ How ya’ doin’”. “Talked to your mama yesterday”. “Who’s that beanpole ya’ got with ya’”. I took some offense to the last remark. Even if I was on the slim side I considered myself a strapping young lad, able to carry my own weight and half of someone else’s. Despite my chagrin (or because of it) the name stuck and I was “Beanpole” forever after in that little cafe.
Basically I was a city kid. I had been born in a large metropolis and the smallest town I had ever lived in had a population of seventy-five thousand. It was here, among the bacon and eggs washed down by endless cups of coffee, that I was introduced to reality. As I sat there, sipping coffee from the thick ceramic mug that must be a standard in every cafe in America, I listened as these men spoke of their lives.
It literally astounded me. In an abstract sort of way I knew that the food I ate everyday did not originate at the grocery store. I knew the corn and the peas and the beef were grown somewhere, but I had never connected it with men and women, young boys and girls getting up at three a.m. to milk or set out feed for the cows so they could be on the tractor at first light. As I sat and listened, beneath the joking and good-natured banter, beneath the complaints of low prices for beef and corn and high prices for feed and tractors, beneath all of it, I heard the song they were singing.
These men had a very large hand in creating life. These few fed many. Because of these men, and others like them, the majority of the population, myself included, could go about their daily lives without have to spend the majority of their time scavenging for food. There was something else that intrigued me about these men. It seemed as if they did not sit or stand or walk on the ground, but that the ground flowed through them. I realize that we are all apart of the earth, but with these men it was easier to see. They offered no pretense. They were blunt and honest and had little respect for an able bodied man who could not produce far more than he himself needed.
This, more than anything else made an impression on me. I am not a farmer or rancher, for I found them not to be my calling. However, I am a maker. Sometimes, I make beautiful one-of-a-kind items. Sometimes, I churn out nondescript items by the hundreds. And sometimes, when a tool bites the wood with a crisp sound. When the semi-molten steel on my anvil flows into the shape I intend. I hear the faint sound of a distant melody, and when I walk, the world walks with me.